Farmers are finding it increasingly costly to have to outsource their machine repairs. Dave Alford owns 1,000 acres in San Luis Obispo where he farms garbanzo beans, snow peas, seed crops, and hay. While he has been a farmer for more than 30 years, he also considers himself to be a mechanic.
“You spend so much of your time in agriculture fixing things,” Alford says. “I’m of a size that it’s more economically beneficial to me to fix as much stuff as I can myself.”
This is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more machinery have digital locks installed which prevent owners from fixing the machines themselves. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) 1998 prevents people from breaking the locks on the software and making the repairs.
Take Alford’s John Deere 8520T tractor, for example. While the internal system allows him to monitor hydraulics, the engine, and notifies him of any needed repairs, the tractor has a digital lock – for which he does not have the key – which means he does not have access to the system. If the tractor requires any repairs, he has to transport it to the local dealership, which is more than 40 miles away, or have a technician come on site to do the repairs.
Alford had a problem with the tractor belt, and issue that ended up costing $120 in repairs and a full day of farming. This is problematic in the industry because timing is crucial to farming. When the produce is ready, it’s essential that you harvest it.
“So if you have a small problem that does not allow your tractor to operate and you have downtime it’s costing you money and a lot of stress,” Said Alford.
Digital locks can be found on everything from medical devices, garage door openers, game consoles, cars, and most software technology. Breaking the digital lock on these devices could cost you up to $500,000 in fines or 5 years in jail.
Farmers, mechanics, consumer advocates, and security researchers have the opportunity to fight for exceptions to the law, which states that the copyright office can examine the law and grant exceptions every three years.
“I do feel just philosophically when you purchase a tractor, you own the tractor,” says Ryan Talley, another farmer in San Luis Obispo. “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.”
The copyright office is currently under deliberations to determine if farmers can be exempt from the law so they can make their own repairs to their equipment. Unless congress changes the law, this battle will have to be fought once again in three years, when the negotiations are re-opened.