An Apple and a Deere
walk into a tech bar
A tale of unlikely bedfellows

Apple-DeereReturning from a camping trip, Henry Ford, yes, that Henry Ford, saw a farmer repairing a car. That the farmer’s car wasn’t a Ford didn’t stop Henry, an irrepressible tinkerer, from hopping out of his own car, which was a Ford, to help. In no time the farmer’s car was running again, whereupon the farmer offered to compensate his unknown assistant. Henry declined, adding that he had all the money he needed. “Hell,” said the farmer, “you can’t have that much and drive a Ford.”*

That couldn’t happen today. Today, the more likely protocol would be to tow the car to a dealer, who would connect a computer to a port in the car, and then say, “You need a spark plug.”

I’m exaggerating only a little. Take, for instance, what has quite possibly been the farmer’s most trusted brand for 180 years: John Deere. The days when you can haul out your wrenches and have your conked-out John Deere tractor working again are numbered. Newer Deeres require the use of a special diagnostic tool that farmers aren’t allowed to own. Per an article by The Guardian’s senior technology reporter Olivia Solon:

Only manufacturers and authorized dealers are allowed that tool, and they charge hundreds of dollars in call-out fees to use it.

Not only that. The days when you can call the conked-out tractor yours are also numbered. In much the same way that you don’t own the songs you “purchase” from iTunes or the books you “purchase” on your Kindle or Nook—you merely have licensed access—John Deere contends that farmers don’t really “purchase” Deere equipment. In an article for Wired entitled “We can’t let John Deere destroy the very idea of ownership,” Kyle Wiens wrote:

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.

Before you hurry out to picket John Deere, you should know they’re not alone. You may have noticed from Wiens’s article that General Motors sides with Deere. In his article “General Motors, John Deere want to make tinkering, self-repair illegal,” Extreme Tech writer Joel Hruska observes:

GM, meanwhile, alleges that “Proponents incorrectly conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software in a vehicle.”

Not that farmers are taking this sitting down. Last week, TIME’s deputy tech editor Alex Fitzpatrick wrote …

… farmers nationwide have banded together in support of the so-called Right to Repair legislation. These bills, which have been proposed in at least 12 states, would require equipment manufacturers to offer the diagnostic tools, manuals and other supplies that farmers need to fix their own machines.

To which Deere spokesman Ken Golden replied:

Customers, dealers and manufacturers should work together on the issue rather than invite government regulation that could add costs with no associated value.

Which sounds great in theory. Trouble is, when those in power say Let’s work together, sometimes it really means You little guys need to see it our way. Indeed, the legal course Deere et al are taking could easily be seen to err in that direction.

And now, in a case of unlikely bedfellows, Apple has joined the fray.

So has AT&T, and they’re siding with Deere and GM. Fitzpatrick continues that the Right to Repair movement …

… has come up against an unexpected opponent: Apple. The iPhone maker and world’s largest public corporation by market capitalization has been lobbying state lawmakers in opposition to the bills. The argument … is that they could result in subpar repair work or … make consumers vulnerable to hackers.

But …

Right to Repair advocates say that Apple … wants to maintain control of its share of the approximately $4 billion smartphone-fixing business … Apple makes an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion a year fixing iPhones compared to approximately $120 billion to $200 billion selling them.

I see legitimate arguments on both sides. It’s reasonable that consumers want the right to repair their own stuff, including the right to ruin it. Yet the tangled world of copyrighted codes introduces legal nuances that consumers may not fully appreciate. Moreover, when consumers tinker with and ruin their purchased products, it can take only a matter of hours for the social media to cast the manufacturer as the bad guy.** I’ll be interested to see how this plays out long-term.

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* From The People’s Tycoon by Steven Watts. Knof, 2005

** A dry cleaner who ruined a friend’s necktie tried to blame Nordstrom for selling him “a tie that can’t be dry cleaned.” Yeah, right.

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