John Deere just told the copyright office that only corporations can own property, humans can only license it

April 22, 2017
Cory Doctorow

John Deere has turned itself into the poster-child for the DMCA, fighting farmers who say they want to fix their own tractors and access their data by saying that doing so violates the 1998 law's prohibition on bypassing copyright locks.

Deere's just reiterated that position to a US Copyright Office inquiry on the future of the law, joined by auto manufacturers (but not Tesla) and many other giant corporations, all of them arguing that since the gadgets you buy have software, and since that software is licensed, not sold, you don't really own any of that stuff. You are a licensee, and you have to use the gadget according to the license terms, which spell out where you have to buy your service, parts, consumables, apps, and so on.

As software eats the world, it's devouring the idea of private property -- "that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe."

The fact that the DMCA felonizes bypassing copyright locks, combined with the proliferation of copyrighted software in gadgets means that companies can turn their commercial preferences into private laws. Just design your gadget so that using is in any way apart from the official, prescribed way requires breaking a copyright lock. Now, anyone who violates your license terms is also committing a felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

For a first offense.

What's more, security researchers who reveal defects in these gadgets face the same harsh punishment, and routinely self-censor, even when they find potentially life-threatening bugs in medical implants or cars.

Other automakers pointed out that owners who make unsanctioned modifications could alter their vehicles in bad ways. They could tweak them to go faster. Or change engine parameters to run afoul of emissions regulations.

They’re right. That could happen. But those activities are (1) already illegal, and (2) have nothing to do with copyright. If you’re going too fast, a cop should stop you—copyright law shouldn’t. If you’re dodging emissions regulations, you should pay EPA fines—not DMCA fines. And the specter of someone doing something illegal shouldn’t justify shutting down all the reasonable and legal modifications people can make to the things they paid for.

GM went so far as to argue locking people out helps innovation. That’s like saying locking up books will inspire kids to be innovative writers, because they won’t be tempted to copy passages from a Hemingway novel. Meanwhile, outside of Bizarroland, actual technology experts—including the Electronic Frontier Foundation—have consistently labeled the DMCA an innovation killer. They insist that, rather than stopping content pirates, language in the DMCA has been used to stifle competition and expand corporate control over the life (and afterlife) of products.

We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership [Kyle Wiens/Wired]

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