It may not be enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but the Right to Tinker with farm machinery is well embedded in America’s rural culture. I grew up a first-hand witness to farm tinkering. I still remember when my dad and Uncle Herman thought it would be a good idea to “marry” a header from a John Deere chopper onto a Farmhand silage cutter. Farmhand made a good harvester, but a lousy header. With some farm-engineering and a lot of welding, a new Farmhand/Deere silage cutter was created. The machine wasn't perfect, but it cut a lot of silage. It was the epitome of tinkering.
I’ve been thinking about this sort of on-the-farm tinkering since reading a recent WIRED article about John Deere’s assertion that farmers should not be allowed to tinker with their farm equipment’s software. So many aspects of farming in my childhood involved modifying equipment to improve it. Today, this still occurs. I’ve been fascinated by all of the farmers showing off their corn planter modifications on social media. In fact, Monsanto thought planter mods were so valuable it agreed to pay $250 million for Precision Planting, Inc., a company founded on planter-tinkering.
John Deere and other manufacturers oppose removal of “Technology Protection Measures” (TPM) on vehicle equipment software. These TPMs prevent tinkering, which these software creators say is necessary due to warranties, emission controls, reliability and safety. Copyright law currently favors these TPMs, providing developers with up to 120 years of copyright protection to keep infringers from modifying their software (or copying it).
The law may allow it, but is prevention of software tinkering a good thing for tractors, combines, and silage cutters? I think the ag community needs to have this debate. Should you be able to buy a new tractor and modify its software to make the tractor run differently? Or should you be able to replace the software entirely with a different system that better meets your needs? Should farmers be allowed to tinker with their software, like they do everything else?
The real problem here is with copyright law. A company’s copyright exists for up to 120 years. That’s too long for software. My suggestion is to shorten copyright duration on software to 10 years. That way companies like John Deere could protect their investments with TPMs on new equipment, and buyers of 10+ year-old used equipment would be free to tinker all they want. But even if the law doesn't change, companies could voluntarily agree to sunset their TPMs after a number of years.
After all, the Right to Tinker is as American as the steel plow.