You May Own the Tractor, but the Software’s Another Story

Farmers have always loved to tinker with their tractors and other equipment, says Todd Janzen, but as that equipment becomes more technically advanced and more controlled by software, “they’re going to lose some of that right to tinker with their equipment and modify it.”

A couple of years ago, he says, Wired magazine created quite a stir with an article on the theme, “It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks, you’re just driving it,” citing legal terminology in sales contracts aimed at preventing owners from altering the tractor’s software.

Janzen, who heads Janzen Ag Law at Indianapolis, Ind., and writes a blog on legal issues in agriculture, discussed the issue at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Summer Commodity Conference at Mississippi State University

“A modern John Deere tractor has both hardware — diesel engine, rubber tires, transmission, etc. — and software, which is the programming for that tractor. The licensing agreement growers had to sign when they bought a tractor said that John Deere owns the software and licenses it to you for use with that tractor.

“Such agreements aren’t unusual. Every device that operates with software has a similar agreement — you license the software to use the device. All this developed when DVD movies came out; U.S. copyright law said it was illegal to hack into a DVD to defeat the security protection measures in order to copy a movie. And that made sense: We shouldn’t allow people to copy DVDs willy-nilly.”

But, says Janzen, when copyright law was applied to a tractor, it became a somewhat different story: some owners wanted to make modifications to their tractors. “So, there was a petition to the Library of Congress to allow owners to access the software on their tractors. The petitioners contended that companies like John Deere shouldn’t be able to force farmers not to modify the software.

“This went back and forth, but John Deere eventually lost that battle and the Library of Congress said it would allow people to hack into a tractor’s software to fix it or alter it. However, there is a Part 2 of the story. The company changed the licensing agreement so when a farmer buys the machine, he agrees he won’t hack into the software and alter it any way. John Deere isn’t alone in this; other companies have similar agreements. Car manufacturers, for example, don’t want people hacking into a vehicle’s software to defeat the emissions system, or to make other modifications that could be illegal or dangerous.”

Motherboard magazine, Janzen noted, carried a story, “Why American farmers are hacking their tractors with Ukranian software” that was bought on the black market online .

“I don’t know where this is all going to end,” he says. “Elon Musk, CEO of the company that makes luxury Tesla electric vehicles, has said the software in his cars is more valuable than the hardware. The car is basically a computer on wheels — it can drive itself, or you can summon it with your phone to come pick you up. I don’t think you have to have a crystal ball to understand that companies like John Deere, AGCO, CNH, and others see that these machines are slowly going to be more a software-driven product than a hardware-driven product.

“The Versatile machine that my dad farmed with in the 1970s can still cultivate a field, but as farm machinery becomes more software-driven, and we move toward autonomous equipment, manufacturers are going to make it harder and harder for people to hack into their software and alter it.”

As farm machinery becomes more technically advanced and more controlled by software, buyers “are going to lose some of the right to tinker with their equipment and modify it,” says Attorney Todd Janzen.

Technology will continue to be a challenge in agriculture, Janzen says. “Traceability is a big issue coming. As we get more technology on the farm, the ability to trace things will become much more advanced. It’s very easy for me to see the day that Walmart , for example, will say ‘We’re only going to buy soybeans with these 10 characteristics, and we want to see the data as to how this field met those 10 characteristics’. Agriculture needs to be prepared to comply with these requests.”

On the consumer front, he says, “I think there is a struggle between new technology and consumers’ love affair with food. People want to know where their food comes from, and to be in touch with it. But as we become more technology savvy on the farm, the human side pulls back and the robots take over. This, I think, is really a dichotomy.”

Noting that exports are vital to a strong U.S. agriculture, Janzen says, “We need to keep in mind that ag technology is also a major U.S. export. The industries you support also do a lot of good for everyone else in the world.”

Janzen’s blog is at “I love to hear from people who read my comments,” he says.

Source: Hembree Brandon, Delta Farm Press

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