John Deere’s Weird Idea of ‘Ownership’

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tractor1It’s offi­cial: John Deere and Gen­er­al Motors want to evis­cer­ate the notion of own­er­ship. Sure, we pay for their vehi­cles. But we don’t own them. Not accord­ing to their cor­po­rate lawyers, any­way.

In a par­tic­u­lar­ly spec­tac­u­lar dis­play of cor­po­rate delu­sion, John Deere—the world’s largest agri­cul­tur­al machin­ery mak­er —told the Copy­right Office that farm­ers don’t own their trac­tors. Because com­put­er code snakes through the DNA of mod­ern trac­tors, farm­ers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehi­cle to oper­ate the vehi­cle.”

It’s John Deere’s trac­tor, folks. You’re just dri­ving it. – Wired, April 21, 2015

Prop­er­ty rights are the cor­ner­stone of a free soci­ety. They were already under attack long before John Deere start­ed com­put­er­iz­ing farm trac­tors. Usu­al­ly the attack­ers are from some lev­el of gov­ern­ment, but large cor­po­ra­tions are join­ing the fun.

It’s offi­cial: John Deere and Gen­er­al Motors want to evis­cer­ate the notion of own­er­ship. Sure, we pay for their vehi­cles. But we don’t own them. Not accord­ing to their cor­po­rate lawyers, any­way.

In a par­tic­u­lar­ly spec­tac­u­lar dis­play of cor­po­rate delu­sion, John Deere—the world’s largest agri­cul­tur­al machin­ery mak­er —told the Copy­right Office that farm­ers don’t own their trac­tors. Because com­put­er code snakes through the DNA of mod­ern trac­tors, farm­ers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehi­cle to oper­ate the vehi­cle.”

It’s John Deere’s trac­tor, folks. You’re just dri­ving it. – Wired, http://www.wired.com/2015/04/dmca-ownership-john-deere/ April 21, 2015

Prop­er­ty rights are the cor­ner­stone of a free soci­ety. They were already under attack long before John Deere start­ed com­put­er­iz­ing farm trac­tors. Usu­al­ly the attack­ers are from some lev­el of gov­ern­ment, but large cor­po­ra­tions are join­ing the fun.

Yet the cor­po­rate attacks typ­i­cal­ly use polit­i­cal­ly cre­at­ed weapons. John Deere relies on the 1998 Dig­i­tal Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act to claim that the farm­ers who “buy” its trac­tors pos­sess only the phys­i­cal machin­ery, not the soft­ware that makes it run.

Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, nor­mal main­te­nance is almost impos­si­ble with­out access to this soft­ware. This effec­tive­ly forces farm­ers to keep pay­ing John Deere for the trac­tor long after they sup­pos­ed­ly gained own­er­ship of it.

Some farm­ers try to avoid this extor­tion by hack­ing their own trac­tors. John Deere claims this is ille­gal under the DMCA law and is ask­ing the Copy­right Office to stop it.

John Deere is not the only com­pa­ny to make this argu­ment. As Wired points out, every major auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­er takes this same posi­tion. (Tes­la is the only excep­tion.)

Gen­er­al Motors is par­tic­u­lar­ly pas­sion­ate about its “intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty” claims. Wired writer Kyle Wiens dis­miss­es their argu­ments.

GM went so far as to argue lock­ing peo­ple out helps inno­va­tion. That’s like say­ing lock­ing up books will inspire kids to be inno­v­a­tive writ­ers, because they won’t be tempt­ed to copy pas­sages from a Hem­ing­way nov­el. Mean­while, out­side of Bizarroland, actu­al tech­nol­o­gy experts—including the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foundation—have con­sis­tent­ly labeled the DMCA an inno­va­tion killer. They insist that, rather than stop­ping con­tent pirates, lan­guage in the DMCA has been used to sti­fle com­pe­ti­tion and expand cor­po­rate con­trol over the life (and after­life) of prod­ucts.

Bin­go. If you want to pro­mote inno­va­tion, you allow peo­ple with dif­fer­ent ideas to try them. That’s how reg­u­lar cars grew into souped-up drag­sters. Own­ers tin­kered, mod­i­fied and cre­at­ed some­thing new and dif­fer­ent.

GM and John Deere now seek to make this kind of inno­va­tion impos­si­ble. Their real goal is to elim­i­nate com­pe­ti­tion, and they are using polit­i­cal pow­er to do it. They may suc­ceed, too – for now.

This kind of behav­ior incen­tivizes inno­v­a­tive peo­ple to find dif­fer­ent plat­forms. A few rebel farm­ers are right now ask­ing them­selves why they need John Deere or any oth­er kind of trac­tor at all. Break­throughs in LED light­ing tech­nol­o­gy com­bined with renew­able ener­gy are mak­ing large-scale indoor farm­ing more cost-effec­tive for some crops.

By using copy­right laws to make its trac­tors more expen­sive and less use­ful, John Deere may be plant­i­ng the seeds of its own destruc­tion.

Stop­ping a few hack­ers is easy. Stop­ping human inno­va­tion is impos­si­ble. Those who try it always get what they deserve.