Repair Monopolies and Tractor-Hacking Farmers

Kyle Schwarting is a farmer by trade, and a hacker by necessity. His farm, about 20 minutes outside the city limits of Lincoln, Nebraska, is full of tractors and agricultural equipment, which he picks up in various states of repair from fellow farmers, fixes up, and resells.

“I would say what I’m doing is hacking,” Schwarting tells me, gesturing to a Windows laptop and a USB-to-tractor cable he Frankensteined himself.

The plan is to hook the laptop up to a gigantic John Deere combine, which, like all farm equipment, has become increasingly difficult to repair as companies have introduced new sensors and software into nearly every component. Schwarting has found a hacked version of John Deere’s Service Advisor software on a torrent site, which he can use to diagnose problems with the equipment and ultimately repair it. Without this software, even minor repairs will cost him thousands of dollars from a licensed John Deere repair person and more importantly, time.

“To get it on a truck is $1,000, and by the time you get it hauled somewhere and hauled back, you’re $2,000 into getting something minor fixed,” he said. “You have a real small window to get [a harvest] done in the year, and the tractor broke down. I had to find the software to be able to repair my tractor and make my customer happy and make a living.”

tractor repair revolt

John Deere, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, AT&T, Tesla, and the vast majority of big tech firms have spent the last decade monopolizing repair: “Authorized service providers” who pay money to these companies and the companies themselves are the only ones who have access to replacement parts, tools, and service manuals to fix broken machines; they are also the only ones who have software that can circumvent encryption locks that artificially prevent people like Schwarting from working on equipment. So people like Schwarting find enterprising ways around these locks by finding unauthorized versions of software or by hacking through firmware altogether.

But what started as hacking out of necessity has quickly transformed into a bonafide political movement.

Schwarting and other farmers across the country have found themselves on the front lines of the right to repair movement, the biggest people-versus-big-tech revolt in in recent memory. The goal of this movement is to ultimately get a law passed that will allow farmers, independent repair people, and average consumers to take back ownership of their tractors, their tablets, their cell phones, their air conditioners.

I met with farmers in Nebraska who are leading this movement, and the push is showing considerable momentum: 18 states are currently considering “fair repair” bills, which would require manufacturers to sell repair parts and tools to the masses, would require them to make repair manuals available to the public, and would require them to provide circumvention tools for software locks that are specifically designed to prevent third party repair.

“The Fair Repair act gives an individual the ability—you’ve always had the right—to purchase the diagnostic tools or to take their equipment somewhere local, or to try and repair the equipment yourself,” Lydia Brasch, a state senator who is sponsoring the bill in Nebraska, told me. While older model tractors have manuals with complete repair information from sources such as tractor-manuals-downunder.com, newer models have no such equivalent.

An exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifically makes it legal to hack tractors for the purposes of repair. But John Deere makes farmers sign licensing agreements that limit the amount of tinkering they are supposed to do one their equipment; violating it could be considered breach of contract and farmers who do are liable to be sued.

For more on this topic see this article at Never 2 Tired.