Economy

Jim Hightower: John Deere Is Against the Right to Repair Its Equipment

Despite what corporations may claim, it's your legal right to repair the stuff you own.

Photo Credit: smereka / Shutterstock.com

When I was a boy, I loved spending time with my Uncle Ernest and Aunt Eula on their small northeast Texas farm. They pulled a frugal living from their 50 acres, raising a little bit of everything. Doing a lot with a little to make ends meet, Ernest and Eula operated on principle of frugality expressed in an old country rhyme: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

This meant that when their tractor broke down, they fixed it themselves. Likewise, if their old Zenith console radio went on the fritz, they didn't just order a new one, they brought out their tool kit and fixed it.

While the media and political powers seem blissfully ignorant of the "lifestyles" of America's commoners, most families are struggling financially and are making do or doing without. For this poor- to middle-class majority, frugality is not some old-world virtue, but a household necessity and the fix-it ethic is central to their lives. Add to them the millions of do-it-yourselfers who like to tinker or refuse to be a part of the corporate system's throwaway economy.

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Today, just about every manufactured product containing software, from an electric toothbrush to an SUV, has no-repair clauses and/or digital locks. It's now standard industry practice for manufacturers to insert a spurious claim into their sales agreements that the company retains legal possession of key components of the products they sold to us, and only it can make repairs. To see how insidious this is, let's go back to the farm with Ernest and Eula.

My aunt and uncle would have been thunderstruck that a tractor company like Deere & Company, the world's largest, can now embed a ban on do-it-yourself repairs in the fine-print legalese gobbledygook of its sales contracts. Manufacturers call these devious clauses "End User License Agreements"—EULA!

Although buyers technically "own" the Deere tractor, the EULAs define the software that runs them as its "intellectual property" and asserts "proprietary rights" to certain parts. Therefore, if "unqualified individuals" (aka, farmers) tinker with their purchases, they can be held in violation of federal copyright laws.

Hog stuff! Which syllable in the word "own" don't they understand? If you bought it, it's yours. Period. Congress has passed no laws barring buyers from opening up, ripping out, adding in, fixing, rewiring, upgrading or tying bells onto stuff they've bought. Deere's claim to have a controlling power over people who own its products is a ridiculous perversion of language, logic and law.

Far worse, though, are the multiple harms done to farmers and others who have been led to believe that Deere's repair-prevention clause is the law:

  • First, just hauling your multi-ton tractor to one of the few dealerships or authorized repair shops can cost beaucoup bucks and invaluable time.
  • Second, while Deere will sometimes dispatch a technician for an on-site fix, the key question is: When? A few days' delay, especially during planting and harvesting, can crash a farmer's bottom line.
  • Third, when Deere's "do-not-touch" proprietary software goes haywire, leaving a farmer in the lurch with a broken-down tractor, it's not Deere's fault. Ever. The corporation's lawyers added language to its sales agreement declaring that farmers cannot sue the manufacturer for "crop loss, lost profits, loss of good will, [or] loss of the use of equipment."
  • Fourth, Deere's licensing scheme is an artificial, corporate-imposed, private "law" that will squeeze independent shops out of business and allow Deere to dominate the U.S. tractor-repair market, siphoning money and skilled jobs out of rural communities and ultimately leaving farmers at the mercy of a monopolist.

Deere's claim of a proprietary right to control the repair of your tractor is no more grounded in law than the snake oil flimflammers of yesteryear were grounded in science. Yes, Deere owns the copyrights, patents and trade secrets involved in creating the software, but you're not tampering with, pirating, altering or trying to sell any of those intellectual properties; you're just repairing your tractor, and it's none of the manufacturer's business. It's your absolute right to do so.

Populist author and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes The Hightower Lowdown, a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America’s ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.