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The Software Freedom Conservancy called out farm equipment manufacturer John Deere for failing to comply with its GNU General Public License (GPL) obligations, preventing farmers from repairing tools essential for maintaining the food supply of millions.
The software built into Deere equipment includes GNU/Linux code, which requires that users share their source code via the same GPL copyleft license as GNU/Linux itself. The Software Freedom Conservancy has requested that code nearly a dozen times, but Deere has refused. If Deere were to meet their obligations, engineers could develop free software programs to run on Deere hardware. This alternative farming software would release farmers from the repair restrictions that send tractors into “limp mode” during harvest season, requiring them to call out an official Deere mechanic to put in a service code.
As we have been doing privately for multiple years, we now publicly call on John Deere to immediately resolve all of its outstanding GPL violations, across all lines of its farm equipment, by providing complete source code, including “the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable” that the GPL and other copyleft licenses require, to the farmers and others who are entitled to it, by the licenses that Deere chose to use.Denver Gingerich, Software Freedom Conservancy
Copyrights and Copylefts
This standoff between Deere and its critics is part of a broader debate over “copyleft.” Copyleft is a legal mechanism that aims to ensure free and open software, even as it is modified and distributed by others. For example, when using code covered under the GPL, users agree to share the program’s source code with anyone who wants it. However, even though Deere is utilizing GPL code, it is withholding its own code under the auspices of its intellectual property rights.
Following the letter of the license would mean that when an entity changes the program, they are still required to share their changes back to the free software community. This way, the program can keep getting better and better as more people work on it. The use of copyleft serves as a defense mechanism against companies, just like Deere, that seek to exert power over consumers through software.
In today’s world, software plays a significant role in the operation of various machines, including those that are critical to our daily lives— especially in agriculture. But Deere is shirking these important responsibilities, with critics accusing the equipment giant of withholding its modifications to the GPL code its applications rely on.
So why does source code matter for tractors? In this case, Deere wants to have its cake and eat it too: enjoying the benefits of using GPL-covered software, while ignoring the commitment to contribute modifications back to the free software community. (And yes, Deere continues to deny customers access to the tools and software needed to repair their equipment—for now).
In theory, Deere’s contributions to GPL-covered software, once properly returned to the free software community, could form the foundation of new, free software alternatives to the current draconian ecosystem. That, in turn, might birth a vibrant community of free and premium software and applications that could transform farming and greatly reduce the cost of operating and maintaining farm equipment. Not to mention improve security.
Now that groups like The Software Freedom Conservancy are making noise and stepping up their pressure, it remains to be seen whether Deere will abide by its contractual obligations, or put up a (costly) fight.
- Electric vehicle batteries can’t be repaired or assessed after accidents: Reuters reports that insurance companies are being forced companies to write EV batteries off, which leads to higher premiums and undermines the environmental benefits of going electric. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that battery packs can cost tens of thousands of dollars and represent up to 50% of an EV’s price tag, and they are difficult to recycle or dispose of.
- Medical manufacturers lose challenge on device repair: A federal judge in the District of Columbia dismissed a challenge that might have closed the way to medical device repair. Two medical technology industry groups hoped to lock medical repair companies out of tech like MRI machines, CT scanners, and defibrillators. The 2021 DMCA exception still stands, allowing access to machines loaded with copyrighted software.
- President Biden calls out support for right to repair: On National Agriculture Day, President Biden said: “We are encouraging antitrust agencies to focus on anti-competitive practices in agricultural markets. We are working to secure the so-called ‘right to repair’ so farmers can fix their own machinery and tractors, rather than being required to send them back to the manufacturer.”
- LG televisions sent to early grave: LG caused controversy with its response to a customer complaint in Australia regarding a TV that had a failed display after only six months of use. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has regulations requiring customers have the right to request a repair, replacement, or refund.
- Demand for new smartphones declines: The smartphone market is experiencing a decline in sales due to dampened consumer demand, inflation, and economic uncertainties. Lauren Goode at WIRED says while the form factor of the smartphone will continue to evolve, with better displays and foldable phones, she expects a stronger focus on software with features related to privacy and identifying fake news.
- Repair might be used for greenwashing: While fashion giant Uniqlo is expanding its repair service to stores in the US, Primark is focusing on durability standards—making us wonder if whether these trends of fashion companies embracing repair are truly here to stay. A true adoption of repair in the fashion industry would have social and economic impacts for millions of laborers worldwide by curbing overproduction.
- Repair remains a key skill for farmers: Farmers need mechanical, carpentry, and IT skills in today’s day and age, says 8th-generation farmer Becky Nelson, but proprietary repair policies are threatening the livelihood of farmers. Nelson says it is crucial for farmers to stay informed, join organizations, and lobby for their interests when it comes to repair.