How Could Fixing a Tractor Violate Copyright Law?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Tractor in the fieldTo the extent most people know anything about copyright law, they maybe know that it has something to do with copying other peoples’ words and pictures.

So what could copyright law possibly have to do with fixing a tractor?

As NPR reports, California farmer Dave Alford is prohibited by copyright law from fixing some things that go wrong with his John Deere 8520T tractor.

The tractor cabin contains computer screens that tell Alford when something’s wrong with the machine. However, John Deere has a digital lock on the tractor’s software.

The company says that the lock is needed because unqualified people working on the tractor software could endanger customer safety.

(Of course, people endanger their safety every day by tinkering with OTHER aspects of machinery…)

According to NPR,

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 visit him. Alford had an issue about a year ago; the tractor belts were loose. He waited a day for the John Deere rep.

Even a day’s wait can cause problems for a farmer: “When the soil is soft enough to till you have to go; when the crop is ripe you have to pick it.”

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Alford isn’t allowed to hack into his own tractor because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA).

The DMCA is a US copyright law that (among other things) criminalized the production and distribution of tools for circumventing technical measures to control access to copyrighted works.

Prohibited circumvention includes:

to descramble a scrambled work, to decrypt an encrypted work, or otherwise to avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure, without the authority of the copyright owner…

As the NPR story notes, many things in addition to tractors are run by software protected by digital locks:

  • Medical devices, such as pacemakers
  • Game consoles
  • Cars
  • Garage door openers

Circumventing a digital lock can get you five years in prison or $500,000 in fines.

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Car Hacking

Every three years, the Copyright Office revisits the DMCA.

As Forbes recently reported,

A war is brewing and battles are taking place this week in L.A. and next week in Washington, D.C., where car hackers and security pros are fighting one of the laws threatening their tinkering, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). They will give evidence to the US Copyright Office, going up against giant automotive firms, including General Motors and the Auto Alliance trade body that includes almost every major car maker minus Tesla, who don’t want any unauthorized parties to mess with their products. They are debating an exemption, the proposed Class 21, to the DMCA that would allow the legal owner of the car to bypass security protections (i.e. hack) to make any changes they wanted.

More information about the proposed exception to the DMCA for vehicle software is here.

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