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Right to Repair in America’s Breadbasket

It happens to nearly everyone: people drop their phones in a frantic rush, or they fall out of pockets onto the sidewalk, and the screen is cracked. People can bring devices to one of the numerous independent repair shops that have become ubiquitous in most towns and cities, and repairs can be done relatively affordably and conveniently. Upon getting their device back, one sometimes discovers that it is no longer usable and has essentially been “bricked”, disabled by the manufacturer, purportedly for security purposes. This is what Apple did in 2016, when engineering the iPhone 6 in such a way that it becomes disables should it detect a non-original home button, which is commonly replaced with the screen assembly. This scenario is one of many that advocates of the right-to-repair movement reference frequently. At its core, the movement seeks legislative action on company policies that either prohibit or significantly impede the repair of their products by either the customer or independent repair technicians. Additionally, when people are able to service their own products rather than disposing of or replacing them, more materials are kept out of the waste stream. In a nation where over 20 million tons of electronics are discarded every year, there is an extremely compelling case for repairing devices to reduce waste. 

But while much of the attention surrounding the right-to-repair movement has been fixated on the consumer electronics industry, the agricultural sector is also central to the conversation. Agriculture has become one of the most heavily automated industries, and the technological sophistication of agricultural equipment has increased dramatically since the onset of the Green Revolution. These technologies have greatly increased agricultural productivity while meeting the demands of a diminishing agricultural workforce, but the legal ramifications left for the farmers who must repair their equipment when things inevitably go wrong pose a unique challenge that has further promulgated the right-to-repair debate. The once purely-mechanical tractors and agricultural implements have become imbued with computer hardware and software that the manufacturers maintain exclusive licensing rights to.

An international hegemon with $2.75 billion in profits in 2020, John Deere is one of the biggest players in the agricultural equipment domain and is one of the most trenchant opponents of the movement. Like most other high-tech companies, Deere has a vested interest in ensuring that customers who purchase their proprietary technology also come back to them once they are in need of a repair. Should a component fail on a tractor, either a John Deere company technician would need to travel to the disabled tractor, or the farmer would have to transport the tractor to a John Deere facility, both of which may be costly and time consuming. The technician would need to use John Deere proprietary diagnostic software to identify the faulty or broken component, and then order another one, a process that may potentially take days. In the world of agriculture, farmers are at the mercy of small windows for sowing and harvesting, and may not have the time or resources to coordinate such a protracted repair process, recapitulating the need for access to the necessary parts and software to make the repair. In order to avoid such a logistically and financially fraught repair process, many farmers have resorted to using bootleg John Deere software originating from Eastern European countries like Ukraine in order to diagnose technical problems with their tractors. This software is typically accessed from invite-only online forums and is then sold to farmers. After purchasing the software, a USB key containing programs like the John Deere Service Advisor, which enables farmers to recalibrate many components of the tractor, Electronic Data Link drivers, which allow for communication between the tractor and the computer software servicing it, and payload files, which enable farmers to refine and tweak components of their tractor like the engine and powertrain, are sent to the farmer. The legality of this software black market is gray; a 2015 exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was enacted to prevent internet piracy, was passed by the Librarian of Congress to exclude land vehicles like tractors from the purview of the law. It was around this time that John Deere itself began to require farmers who purchased their equipment to sign licensing agreements that expressly prohibit alterations and repairs performed by the customer. Should a farmer not abide by this agreement, John Deere could potentially sue them for breach of contract. John Deere has a strong incentive to maintain this repair monopoly over their equipment, as the profits for the parts and services division is three to six times more profitable than equipment sales. The corporate cadres of Deere are adamant that the repair process necessitated by their licensing agreement is crucial in order to maintain the precision and efficiency of the implements and components, vehicle safety, adherence environmental and emissions regulations, and that its proprietary software is best maintained and modified by its legions of software developers. 

In addition to the difficulties that repair monopolies cause farmers, the consequences of the right to repair movement also strikes a note with one particular side of farming life: the diminution of the ability to repair farm equipment bucks a trend that is hundreds of years old. Farmers have historically taken great pride in maintaining their own equipment and have long been experts on jury rigging even the most mechanically complicated farming implements; this was the case until the implements they had been servicing became more software-based. Currently, there are 14 states that have introduced legislation to support the right to repair movement. These pieces of legislation are likely to be contested by throngs of lawyers and trade representatives, and passing such groundbreaking legislation is likely to be difficult with high-caliber corporations in the mix. In 2017, Nebraska congresswoman Lydia Brasch introduced the “Fair Repair Act” in favor of the right-to-repair movement. In legislative hearings, representatives from tech conglomerates like Apple were in attendance due to the potential precedent this piece of legislation could have had on their industry. The bill was mothballed in 2018, and as of 2021, LB543, a similar bill, called the “Agricultural Equipment Right-To-Repair Act”, has been introduced to the legislature. The legal ramifications of something like LB543 being codified into law could see more states around the nation adopt similar legislation that not only applies to agricultural equipment, but to electronics, appliances, automobiles, and other consumer goods. Given the numerous entities staking claim in the debate, a legal precedent in the right-to-repair movement could have the potential to restructure how companies approach their business model. In the interim, farmers must continue to make the best of their options: cracked diagnostic software or paying lofty prices for protracted manufacturer-authorized service. 



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