AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And it's time for All Tech Considered.
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CORNISH: Think of a farmer working the land, self-reliant enough to fix much of the equipment he owns by himself. Well, that farmer's right to do that is in dispute. Tractors are increasingly run by software, and NPR's Laura Sydell reports some farmers are now up against copyright law.
DAVE ALFORD: My name is Dave Alford.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: He's that iconic farmer.
ALFORD: I do farming on the family ranch here. I've been farming for the past 30 years and obviously, my family much before that.
SYDELL: Alford wears a blue baseball cap with a Farm Supply company logo across the top, a plaid shirt, blue jeans and work boots. As Alford and I walk across to see one of his newer tractors, we pass what looks like a graveyard of rusty old ones.
Why do you keep them around?
ALFORD: Just because I'm a farmer.
SYDELL: Farmers like to keep tractors around. (Laughter).
ALFORD: Yeah. You can't get rid of them, you know? You keep thinking, well, maybe I'll make this one work someday.
SYDELL: Alford considers himself a small farmer. He's got a thousand acres in San Luis Obispo along the central coast of California. Among his crops - snow peas, garbanzo beans, hay and seed crops. But he jokes that he tells his friends he's a mechanic.
ALFORD: You spend so much of your time in agriculture fixing things. I'm of a size that it's more economically beneficial to me to fix as much stuff as I can myself.
SYDELL: That's been getting a lot harder to do.
ALFORD: I'm just going to start this.
SYDELL: Alford and I sit in the air conditioning closed cabin of his John Deere 8520T tractor. In the cabin are little computer screens that monitor the engine.
ALFORD: So I can monitor, for example, what my hydraulics are doing that's running the implement behind me. I can monitor the regular standard things in an engine.
SYDELL: And a little computer screen lets Alford know when something is wrong. Unfortunately, Alford isn't allowed to fix it. John Deere has a digital lock on the software that runs Alford's tractor, and it won't give him the key. If something goes wrong with one of his tractors, Alford has to take it to an authorized John Deere dealer. The closest one is about 40 miles away. Or a John Deere rep has to come to visit with him. Alford had an issue about a year ago. The tractor belts were loose. He waited a day for the John Deere rep to come.
ALFORD: The tech came out, and it took him a couple hours to diagnose that there was one small sensor out, and that one small sensor - I think it was a $120 part.
SYDELL: The problem with this setup is that in farming, timing is everything. When the soil is soft enough to till, you got to go. When the crop is ripe, you got to pick it.
ALFORD: So if you have a small problem that does not allow your tractor to operate and you have down time, it's costing you money and a lot of stress.
SYDELL: You may wonder, why doesn't Alford just break that digital lock and get into the software and fix the problems himself? He could, but he'd be breaking the law. It's called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 or DMCA. It was written because movie studios were worried that people would break the digital locks on DVDs, make copies and pirate them. Kyle Wiens is cofounder of iFixit, and they help people repair their own technology.
KYLE WIENS: And so now we have the situation where there's digital locks on all kinds of things. There's digital locks on your garage door opener. And if you want to circumvent that, if you want to use an aftermarket garage door opener that wasn't made by your garage door opener manufacturer, you might be violating copyright law.
SYDELL: And you can add to this list. It is illegal to break the digital locks on medical devices - say, a pacemaker - game consoles, cars, pretty much anything you purchase that runs with software. If you break the digital lock, you can face five years in prison and/or a half-a-million in fines. Though, we haven't heard of that happening to a farmer.
The law provides that every three years, the Library of Congress's copyright office can review the law and make exemptions. Farm groups, mechanics, security researchers, consumer advocates are in the midst of fighting for several exemptions. Automakers, John Deere and others are opposed.
John Deere would not talk on tape, but in an emailed statement, the company said ownership does not include the right to modify computer code that's embedded in that equipment. The company went on to say that unqualified individuals could endanger customer safety. Ryan Talley, another farmer in San Luis Obispo says he understands safety concerns, but he thinks the manufacturers should work with the farmers.
RYAN TALLEY: I do feel, just philosophically, when you purchase a tractor, you own the tractor. And I firmly believe that these tractor companies need to make it so that their clients or their customers can repair their tractors if they so decide to do so.
SYDELL: The Copyright Office is deliberating on whether Talley and other farmers can have the right to fix their tractors. They'll decide by October. And if they grant the exemption, it will only last for three years. Then the farmers argue for it all over again unless Congress changes the law. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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