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DRM Businesses Software United States

American Farmers Are Still Fighting Tractor Software Locks (npr.org) 316

Manufacturers lock consumers into restrictive "user agreements," and inside "there's things like you won't open the case, you won't repair," complains a U.S. advocacy group called The Repair Association. But now the issue is getting some more attention in the American press. An anonymous reader quotes NPR: Modern tractors, essentially, have two keys to make the engine work. One key starts the engine. But because today's tractors are high-tech machines that can steer themselves by GPS, you also need a software key -- to fix the programs that make a tractor run properly. And farmers don't get that key.

"You're paying for the metal but the electronic parts technically you don't own it. They do," says Kyle Schwarting, who plants and harvests fields in southeast Nebraska... "Maybe a gasket or something you can fix, but everything else is computer controlled and so if it breaks down I'm really in a bad spot," Schwarting says. He has to call the dealer. Only dealerships have the software to make those parts work, and it costs hundreds of dollars just to get a service call. Schwarting worries about being broken down in a field, waiting for a dealer to show up with a software key.

The article points out that equipment dealers are using those expensive repair calls to offset slumping tractor sales. But it also reports that eight U.S. states, including Nebraska, Illinois and New York, are still considering bills requiring manufacturers to sell repair software, adding that after Massachusetts passed a similar lar, "car makers started selling repair software."
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American Farmers Are Still Fighting Tractor Software Locks

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  • Positive (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:04AM (#54205647)

    I think it's a great thing that people who typically vote for more corporate freedom finally get to see the price of unrestrained corporatism.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Don't worry, the market will work it out. Some upstart company will decide to forego the huge income resulting from repair restrictions and will provide an alternative, and so many buyers will switch to that company to make up for those losses. Shouldn't be more than 90% have to switch for that to work, so it won't be long before all the companies drop the restriction! Right?

      • Re: Positive (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:30AM (#54205743)

        This would happen, if it were not for manufacturers' intellectual property control over their software. Just like pharma companies, the manufacturers have imposed socialism for themselves by having protectionism written into the law. Capitalism is for the customers.

        We need to define 'right to repair' as an extension of fair use.

        • Re: Positive (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 10, 2017 @08:51AM (#54206059)

          Nothing to do with socialism, but everything with good old abuse of market power by a private monopoly facilitated by US IP law.

        • Re: Positive (Score:5, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 10, 2017 @08:53AM (#54206073)

          I don't think you know what socialism is. It's not this.

          What you're looking at is monopolistic competition; it's a routine outcome of an underregulated capitalist system.

          And then, to compound your misunderstanding of socialism, the remedy you're after is regulation.

          • Re: Positive (Score:5, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 10, 2017 @09:20AM (#54206171)

            This is ALL contingent upon the coercive IP laws that are imposed and enforced by government. Free market my ass.

            • BINGO we have a winner!

              Time to reverse engineer the shit out of the abusive corporations and post it out in the open for all to see. Hack the planet.

          • Re: Positive (Score:5, Insightful)

            by judoguy ( 534886 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @10:05AM (#54206387) Homepage

            What you're looking at is monopolistic competition; it's a routine outcome of an underregulated capitalist system.

            Wrong. What you're looking at is called Fascism. Or what Mussolini called Corporatism. The unholy alliance of anti free market big business and the coercive power of the State.

            ObamaCare is an excellent example, if you need another.

          • Re: Positive (Score:5, Informative)

            by MBGMorden ( 803437 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @10:33AM (#54206581)

            I think what they're getting at is anything that says you can't legally repair something is an artificial market protection.

            In a completely free market, no such clause would be legally enforceable, and any secondary market vendor who wanted to hack the system and repair it for a lower charge than the manufacturer could do so without any legal headaches.

            All the trouble that comes along with the DMCA or things like Monsanto copyrighting seeds and such is most certainly NOT free market capitalism.

        • Re: Positive (Score:5, Insightful)

          by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @09:58AM (#54206351) Journal

          Words mean things. Socialism isn't just a word meaning "bad things I don't like". Why not just have done with it and call them "SJWs"?

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Orgasmatron ( 8103 )

            It is actually a pretty common usage. It came up a lot around the crash of 2008. The banks had, for years, kept profits for their investors, but when they were faced with losses, they wanted those losses socialized - spread around to everyone (or to "society").

            It isn't, strictly speaking, a reference to Marxist "socialism".

        • We need to define 'right to repair' as an extension of fair use.

          No, that's backwards. We need to recognize that when the privileges given to holders of "Imaginary Property" conflict with the rights of owners of actual property, it is the actual property rights that must prevail, not the imaginary property privileges.

          In other words, it shouldn't be that the right to repair is a limited exception of copyright; it should be that copyright is a limited(!) exception to ownership rights.

      • Re: Positive (Score:5, Interesting)

        by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:30AM (#54205747) Homepage Journal

        Disruptive business plans are a real thing. It's basically the business culture of Silicon Valley: find a traditional business, kill it and feast off its corpse. The problem is that it's a lot harder to do with something like tractors than it is with services or retail.

        • traditional business, kill it and feast off its corpse.

          Makes for more efficient markets. If it doesn't, then there is some sort of regulation or law preventing new enterprises to fill the gap, and those are the real problems.

      • Re: Positive (Score:5, Informative)

        by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:34AM (#54205763) Homepage

        Don't worry, the market will work it out. Some upstart company will...

        Nah, the sort of company that does this to farmers will have a large portfolio of dumb patents and an army of lawyers to back it up.

  • How long until slashdot fixes the mistake in the summary? it is currently 7:04 am EST

    Also how long until manufacturer's realize that by artificially limiting options and driving up price they drive themselves out of business?

    • Try, just TRY to get around John Deere. It's not like you have a lot of options.

      • Re:How long (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Freischutz ( 4776131 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:42AM (#54205799)

        Try, just TRY to get around John Deere. It's not like you have a lot of options.

        John Deere, ~67% market share followed by Case IH at ~17% and New Holland at ~9%, that's perilously close to a monopoly. You could try to give big old JD some hard competition by importing tractors from places where they don't try to rape you over software updates but if you do 'The Donald' will slap a 30% import tariff on you so farmers are now literally fucked in every possible way.

        • Re:How long (Score:5, Interesting)

          by dheltzel ( 558802 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @08:28AM (#54205965)
          Case, IH, and New Holland are all owned by Fiat/Chrysler, so if your numbers are correct, then the #2 spot is 26%. The bigger problem for those companies is the rather intense loyalty shown by JD owners. But if you are trying to kill off all your customer loyalty, you could hardly do better than approach outlined here.

          Farmers talk amongst themselves, a lot, so a crop threatening failure to provide needed service, can quickly become a huge negative in the minds of any farmers shopping for new equipment.

          Nothing like "pissing off your best customers to make more profits" as a business model, is it.

        • You could try to give big old JD some hard competition by importing tractors from places where they don't try to rape you over software updates but if you do 'The Donald' will slap a 30% import tariff on you so farmers are now literally fucked in every possible way.

          Those same farmers evidently voted for Trump overwhelmingly so if they do get hit with an import tariff they have no right to complain. They knew the guy was a xenophobe and protectionist when they voted for him. They made their bed so they can sleep in it.

          Only downside I can see is that those costs ultimately get passed along to you and me. Allowing JD to engage in this sort of shenanigans ultimately is paid for by us at the grocery store.

      • Re:How long (Score:5, Interesting)

        by elrous0 ( 869638 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @08:46AM (#54206041)

        Fuck it, having worked briefly with farmers when I was younger, I'll play devil's advocate here:

        1) Farmers know damned well that companies like John Deere sell their hardware at cost (or even a loss), with the intention of making their money in servicing the vehicles.

        2) Farmers will howl like dogs if John Deere says "Okay, we'll sell you models that you can fix yourself. But they'll cost twice as much to buy."

        And if you hadn't yet deduced it from the previous two points:

        3) Farmers are a notorious bunch of whiny cheapskates who live to complain about EVERYTHING and will go to any length (legal or otherwise) to save a penny. Seriously, asking a farmer about his farm is like asking an old person about their health--expect to hear nothing but complaints, how much they're suffering, how they need this and that, woe is me, etc. And they will do ANYTHING to make even an extra dime, including hiring illegals, buying seed they know damned well is illegal, cutting corners on sanitation requirements, trying to cheat their workers and work them off the clock, lying to the government about their crop yields to get higher insurance or fallow payouts, etc., etc., etc.

        In other words, farmers want their cake and to eat it too. They want all the latest developments in the technology, and they want it to be repairable by third parties--but they also want it to still be as cheap as it is now (at the price that's based on a maintenance subsidy).

        And that's me playing devil's advocate for today and risking the karma hit from those of you who've never had to deal with farmers before.

        John Deere should respond. "Dear farmers: We can sell it to you cheap or we can sell it to you repairable. Pick any one."

        • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @09:04AM (#54206119) Journal

          I'm not going to say I have strong evidence to disagree with your observations about farmers. But I do live in an area that's still largely rural, in Western Maryland. And my interactions with them (including doing some computer service work for a couple of them) tells me they're not very different from anyone else trying to remain successful, running their own small business.

          Last I checked on tractor pricing, John Deere products suitable for farm use weren't exactly inexpensive, as it is. You really believe they're selling all of these tractors at or below their cost to build them? I'd like to see some evidence to back that claim up.....

          I'm sure that this is just an attempt for the industry to find a new avenue to monetize its products -- seeing how far they can push the boundaries before the law pushes back. The auto industry would *love* to impose the same rules on every car and truck it sells -- but that change would impact so many people (including hundreds of thousands of independent garages, auto parts dealers, etc.) - it can't realistically enforce it right now.

          Picking a relative niche market like farm tractor sales is a better strategy. John Deere knows that #1. it has enough market share so farmers can't go to that many alternatives to avoid them, and #2. it sells a product that's not just purchased for pleasure or convenience. The success of an entire season's crop is at stake.

          Besides, it wasn't always this way. Not all that long ago, a John Deere tractor had no such software lock because the technology to implement it didn't even exist yet. Did you suddenly see tractor prices drop sharply when they decided to start subsidizing them with this forced maintenance?

        • Yes, they should. That would at least be honest. But that's not what John Deere wants either.

          It's not like we haven't seen that before. Anyone owning a printer knows the bait-and-switch gambit.

    • by Z00L00K ( 682162 )

      What mistake?

      Are you sure you have set your timezone right in your profile?

  • by ls671 ( 1122017 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:06AM (#54205657) Homepage

    It seems like somebody needs to step in and develop a root kit for those tractors.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:14AM (#54205681)

    Until now, the whole "software lock in" thing has been something few politicians can grasp. Worse, it's something that few of their constituents give a shit about, so they don't bother to even try to understand it. Usually, everyone who would has something else they care about and few actually depend on it for a living. Outside Silicon Valley, who gave 2 shits about software?

    This could definitely be a game changer. First, farmers are a VERY vocal group and the proverbial epitome of freedom of the land, founder spirit and everything that the average American feels good about. Everyone has a farmer somewhere in his ancestry and everyone can at least somehow understand how that's important. These people make the stuff you eat, after all!

    And more important, people understand fixing agricultural machines. Maybe they don't do it themselves, but basically everyone who didn't exclusively grow up in a downtown area of a metropolis has at some point in time notice that these things break down and that some oil-covered mechanic is working his magic lying underneath one of those beasts to make it wroom again. People understand that this is a necessity, and more important, people expect this to be possible. They grew up with this being possible. This not being possible is something they'd consider impossible, and, worse, someone keeping you from fixing something you own, at least if it's something outside the "fixing costs more than buying a new one" throwaway-appliance garbage, is someone people consider despicable.

    This could wake up our politicians. Mostly because it's no longer large corporate lobbying groups against consumers. It's large corporate lobbying groups against large farmer lobbying groups.

    Grab the popcorn, folks, this is going to get interesting!

    • Someone's an opportunist.

  • by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:20AM (#54205707)

    "If the consumer can not repair the purchased item, then the vendor must provide free parts and labour for the advertised lifetime of the item, provided within a reasonable response time for the industry and item in question".

    In other words, a mandatory all-encompassing warranty with an SLA.

    You want to lock in your customer base? How about the customer base locks in the manufacturer?

    • by OzPeter ( 195038 )

      "If the consumer can not repair the purchased item, then the vendor must provide free parts and labour for the advertised lifetime of the item, provided within a reasonable response time for the industry and item in question".

      Yes judge, my client suffer from a rare form of dyslexia in which he can never remember which way to turn a bolt or a screw, in order to either loosen or tighten, on any sort of farm equipment. Due to this debilitating condition he is unable to repair any of the equipment he owns. As such we respectfully petition the court to force Tractors 'R' Us to comply with the law and provide for free all repairs and maintenance to equipment that my client has purchased from them, and that said repairs and mainten

      • >Due to this debilitating condition he is unable to repair any of the equipment he owns.

        And this is why my 'nice, simple law' would have to go through a few rounds of review and improvement - because the obvious intent isn't enough to stop the legal system from subverting it based on the imprecision of the English language.

        Let's go with revision two:

        "If the vendor prohibits the consumer from repairing the purchased item or contracting a 3rd party of their choice to do so on their behalf, then the vendor

        • by Bert64 ( 520050 )

          There's the problem tho, things are being tilted further and further to the end user's disadvantage... We need a fair system of give and take.

          Manufacturers should provide a warranty up front which is a fixed cost or included in the price, with a fixed duration, or an ongoing service for a monthly/annual cost etc. And users should also have the documentation necessary to repair the products themselves, especially once the manufacturer has lost interest in supporting the product at all. Nothing wrong with mak

          • >Products with a defined "end of life" are extremely damaging to consumers and to the environment

            A defined end of life would only mean that's when the manufacturer was no longer legally bound to support the product (if they'd chosen that rather than opening up the repair process to the end-user and 3rd party parts and service).

            Though you're right, maybe there'd have to be a reclaim/recycle clause in there too... because what good is a device you can't fix, unless it never breaks?

            > especially once the

  • DRM - lost copyright (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It is quite simple. If you lock your software with DRM or artificial lock, the unrestricted warranty of whole product including hw+sw fix automatically rise from 1(2) to 10 years. And the manufacturer / vendor is hereby required to be able to fix any issue on such product until the copyright to it is expired.

  • No need to fight (Score:5, Insightful)

    by houghi ( 78078 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @07:37AM (#54205775)

    The farmers have voted for the candidate that will be all for the farmers and will be doing what is needed for the farmers. Right?

  • Shouldn't free market solution is that someone can develop and sell alternative software? Why aren't the free market people telling us why this isn't happening?

    FREE MARKET ZEALOTS, PLEASE SPEAK UP!

    • the free market doesn't react in a few days. sometimes things take years to play out. especially with products like tractors which take years to design and test and have a useful and accounting depreciation life of years once they are bought. farmers have to do their taxes like everyone else and major purchases like tractors are depreciated on their balance sheets over many years. and most times you have to finance new tractors so it's not like you're just going to dump your old one and run out and buy a ne

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      For that some company in Russia, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Germany or France would have to export a product into the USA that meets US emission and food standards.
      The free market worked, the USA owns it all and uses that profit to keep the world out. Policy of buy out or keep out.
    • by moeinvt ( 851793 )

      We saw a story on /. last week reporting that farmers were using firmware developed by Ukrainian hackers to unlock their tractors. What do you think would happen if someone decided to start a commercial software company to sell similar products? I think they'd get slapped down immediately for violations of the DMCA. Remember that it's illegal even to assist someone in circumventing DRM.
      Farmers are also required to sign an EULA for use of the firmware. There are civil penalties for any 3rd party which in

  • If someone spends $90,000 on a brand-new Tesla and a "service call" costs a few hundred dollars, that's likely a reasonable and expected expense for a complex machine, as long as those service calls don't happen too frequently. By comparison, farmers are spending 2-3x more on high-end computer-controlled farming equipment, so what is a reasonable cost for service calls? Again, not trying to justify a vendor ripping off a customer, but from a cost vs. maintenance expense ratio, bitching about a few hundred

    • Yeah, I really want to know if this is just a vocal minority thing, or is this a real problem. If you spend $300,000+ on a tractor, is the farmer or some other non-certified technician really qualified to perform software updates on the tractor? modern tractors probably have more in common with industrial robots than they do with the tractors of 50 years ago. You probably won't find a modern factory owner complaining that they can't go around and put whatever software they want on the robotics systems that

    • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @09:30AM (#54206211) Journal

      The problem is it cost the farmer $500 to do the repair on the previous model themselves, in an hour. The new model also costs the farmer $500 to do the repair themselves, in an hour; however, the tractor won't "go" until they pay a technician an additional $1,500 to drive out, wave their badge at the device, and whisper the secret word into its ear.

      Part of the complaint is they can't fix their tractor and get back to work; they have to take a relatively-significant hit to productivity and put their farm at risk waiting for a service call.

      • The problem is it cost the farmer $500 to do the repair on the previous model themselves, in an hour. The new model also costs the farmer $500 to do the repair themselves, in an hour; however, the tractor won't "go" until they pay a technician an additional $1,500 to drive out, wave their badge at the device, and whisper the secret word into its ear.

        On the surface, this certainly seems more like vendor greed, but we are talking about very large equipment that perhaps justifies some level of safety validation after a DIY operation. Should a Tesla simply trust Joe Mechanic's DIY battery pack refresh, or does it make sense the vehicle won't "go" until a certified technician runs a proper diagnostic on the vehicle to ensure it is safe to operate? Guess I'm struggling a bit between vendor greed and safety here.

        Part of the complaint is they can't fix their tractor and get back to work; they have to take a relatively-significant hit to productivity and put their farm at risk waiting for a service call.

        I get the impact to productivity, but perhaps

        • Imagine every time you went to reboot your computer after a power outage the computer said: "Your computer restarted unexpectedly. Insert technician USB key to complete reboot sequence". That is the level of control John Deere is exerting and why farmers are buying hacked Russian motherboards for their tractors.
  • Selling the software is not a valid response. Make that repair software free and easy to get. If they can't make a profit simply building tractors get out of the business. The idea is to build a better and cheaper tractor and the best company stays alive. Those that can't compete and use tactics to force people to spend money need to be put out of business. The auto industry is loaded with the same type of corruption. Tesla has a superior product and the industry is trying like crazy to pull any stunt
  • by FudRucker ( 866063 ) on Monday April 10, 2017 @08:07AM (#54205897)
    "using those expensive repair calls to offset slumping tractor sales."

    maybe people dont want to buy new tractors with this new "tractor with expensive propitiatory software, so they are keeping their old tractors, and even buying old tractors because they can fix them their selves without some greedy corporate tractor dealer scalping their pocketbooks every time they need work done on their tractor
  • . . . I see no mention of any other company than John Deere doing this, and only on recent models.

    I see no mention of New Holland, Kubota, Mahindra, or other brands. Seems like a marketing advantage for all the other brands.

    This looks like John Deere's "New Coke" moment , , , ,

    • The sleazy thing John Deere did was change the terms of service for all of the older equipment they could get away with; all at once. I think it was back in October 2016. And the threat was: If you don't agree to the new terms of service we won't service your tractor.
  • ...how often does the software actually break?

    Once a year per vehicle? Once every ten years per fleet?

    And I'm ALL FOR Right To Repair laws, and have spent literally hundreds of hours this year alone tearing apart things from vacuums, to computers, to synthesizers.

    But before I can just give this guy my vote of support, I need to know what the actual stakes are.

    The article doesn't provide any more details. Though, the quotes from the manufacturer already make me lean toward him. The manufacturer is trying to

    • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Monday April 10, 2017 @09:04AM (#54206121)

      One farmer interviewed on CBC radio said the seasonal nature of farming ensures there's nowhere even close to an adequate supply of service people available when they're needed, and calls for service are often hundreds of miles apart. So during the time he desperately needs his tractor working, and could fix it easily himself, he's required to wait for hours or even days for a service rep to show up, plug in a USB drive, and fix some software glitch in a matter of seconds.

      The farmer, whose identity was protected, had downloaded "grey market" software to do such repairs himself.

      The manufacturer's representative who was interviewed afterward made a completely unconvincing case. He claimed they would have somebody at a farm almost instantly, and that they weren't interested in prosecuting farmers who downloaded hacked repair software. In other words, the manufacturer's representative was a bare-faced liar.

    • The issue isn't the software breaking as much as the software has lockouts for any and all replacement parts. Consider if you changed the oil and you had to log into your car to check the RFID tag in the oil filter and if you didn't have the password and an RFID approved oil filter the engine wouldn't start.

      It also means you can't alter any part of the operation of the tractor that is computer controlled. You want a custom library for a specific crop: Pay John Deere. There was a story about a month ago
    • The software breaks every time you make a change. Need to pull out the transmission and replace a damaged gear fork? The software now requires an authorized technician sign off on the repair, and disables the tractor.
      • Its similar to what Microsoft was considering about 10 years ago. If you swapped to many cards the computer would consider it a new computer and demand a fresh install key. Microsoft backed down on that one. But there are stories Microsoft moving the idea along.
  • adding that after Massachusetts passed a similar lar

    Ermehgerd they persed a similar lar!

  • When and if I become a hipster farmer, I want to chill during my tractor experience. And when I call for support I want the call center to be supportive and say to me that I'm OK. The actual problem mustn't be mentioned as it is so coarse to do so.

    No, I'd only want to sit in a comfy chair. On mild days wearing sun glasses. Contemplating the world. Gently stroking my Al Qaeda beard. Feeling good about how good I feel.

    And when the harvest fails I'll activate the suing experience that will take care of

  • if they win car's are next just wait for the $15-$30 non dealer change oil reset code.

  • Now that sounds like fun. I would buy one just to screw with if I had that kind of money just laying around.
  • Can you not just buy a tractor these days? One that doesn't have all this software on it that is just basically a tractor?
  • Here's the problem with this: Farmer buys fancy tractor. Farmer borks fancy tractor trying to "fix" it. Farmer complains to manufacturer and goes on a social media tirade while conveniently forgetting they they are a ham-fisted individual.

    ACHTUNG!
    ALLES TURISTEN UND NONTEKNISCHEN LOOKENPEEPERS!
    DAS KOMPUTERMASCHINE IST NICHT FÜR DER GEFINGERPOKEN UND MITTENGRABEN! ODERWISE IST EASY TO SCHNAPPEN DER SPRINGENWERK, BLOWENFUSEN UND POPPENCORKEN MIT SPITZENSPARKEN. IST NICHT FÜR GEWERKEN BEI DUMMKOPFE

  • As a farmer, why would you even consider buying a mission critical machine that you can't service? Harvesting is time and weather sensitive, so why don't these machines have modular components that can be swapped out with a standby part by the farmer? The computer should be a redundant hot swap module that can be swapped out by the farmer in just a few minutes. You should be able drive to your local JD dealer and exchange the computer module with one off the shelf.

  • I know this is not really the "right" way to think about it, but where these things not made clear at purchase, that in a lot of ways "purchase" meant "rent"? I'm sure contracts were signed, this isn't a $300 piece of software that you click through the EULA. My point is that these farmers knew or should have known what they were signing for when they bought that $400,000 tractor.

No amount of genius can overcome a preoccupation with detail.

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