Another Battle in the Copyright Wars: Smart Tractors

February 16, 2015

Tractor DRMThe Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibited parties from circumventing digital rights management (DRM) technologies and systems that were intended to prevent piracy of copyright protected materials.  Over the years since enactment of the DMCA, this anti-circumvention provision has been applied to block access to computer code embedded to provide security for a seemingly endless array of devices, including electronics equipment and household appliances.  One of the most recent applications of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention prohibition is in the context of tractors and other farm equipment.

Like automobiles, farm machinery now makes extensive use of computer programs to manage its operations.  Tractors for example, rely on computer code identified as the tractor engine control unit (tECU) for intelligent operations.  The tECU provides the brain supporting the sophisticated operations of the farm equipment.

The tECU is protected by computer code which secures the system.  This DRM code blocks access to the tECU by unauthorized parties.  Efforts to override or circumvent the tECU DRM are prohibited by the DMCA.

The tractor DRM system makes efforts to repair or modify tractors and other farm equipment impossible for parties other than authorized repair service providers.  Even the owners of the equipment are not authorized by the equipment manufacturers to circumvent the tractor DRM systems.

Modern farm equipment is extremely expensive to purchase.  It is not unusual for tractors and other equipment to cost in excess of one hundred thousand dollars.  Yet despite that substantial investment by the equipment owners, the manufacturers take the position that the owners are not authorized to circumvent the DRM technologies associated with the equipment, even for the purpose of conducting necessary repairs or customizing the equipment to meet specific needs of the owners.

In effect, farm equipment manufacturers appear to contend that ownership of the products does not provide rights of access to the computer code which makes the products operate.  This situation harms both the equipment owners and repair service providers who support farm equipment.  In response to this aggressive posture by the equipment manufacturers, a growing number of farmers now reportedly purchase used equipment, as that equipment can be readily and less expensively maintained and customized.

Groups representing and supporting farmers have petitioned the U.S. Copyright Office for an exemption from the DMCA’s DRM provisions.  That request urges the Copyright Office to exempt farm equipment owners and repair service providers from the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision to the extent that circumvention of DRM systems is in support of legitimate repair or modification activities associated with the farm equipment.

The anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA is routinely applied in an excessively broad manner.  The Copyright Office should grant the exemption requested for farm equipment.  It should also issue blanket exemptions prohibiting use of DRM systems in ways that interfere with the legitimate rights of product owners.  Use of copyright law to undermine basic rights of product ownership is an absurd approach which unreasonably impedes innovation and economic growth.