Baby, You Can Drive My Car

automobile
By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Buick 52 Convertible Uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0.

I work and live in a very rural area – and have a horse – which means I come into contact with farmers. Many of these farmers drive older tractors. The tractor on my horse’s farm is a 1960s John Deere. Of course, these old vehicles are kept around for a variety of reasons: they’re next-to indestructible if you take good care of them, they’re expensive so no one will replace it if its not needed, they give a connection to previous generations and history. But when the farmers get around to discussing why they haven’t purchased a new tractor, I have only heard one reason: they are not legally allowed to modify their tractors.

For the “layperson,” this sounds absurd. Don’t they own the tractor? Why can’t they repair their own vehicles?

Librarians, on the other hand, might have an inkling of what’s going on. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which affects how libraries disseminate electronic resources, also affects how farmers interact with their (new) tractors and how the rest of us interact with our cars.

The automobile industry – as well as the agricultural machinery industry – have pushed lawmakers and judges to interpret the DMCA in such a way that it is illegal for consumers to view or modify the software that run our vehicles. Farmers can’t repair or modify their own tractors because that could potentially include viewing the tractors’ software – and that violates the law. Thus, only (for example) John Deere can repair John Deere tractors of a certain age.

The United States federal government has decided that, from October 28, 2016 to October 27, 2019, vehicle owners will be allowed to view, modify, and repair their own vehicles’ code. For those 3 years, farmers will be able to repair their own tractors; and car owners can tinker with their cars’ code.

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