Wired.com Column Incites Software Ownership Debate

May 15, 2015
CE Telematics

Wired.com has published an opinion piece that accuses equipment manufacturers, specifically John Deere and General Motors, of "eviscerat[ing] the notion of ownership" of machines by calling for copyright protection for software used in those machines.

Kyle Wiens authored the piece, titled "We Can't Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership." The website's biography says he is the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, "an online repair community and parts retailer internationally renowned for their open source repair manuals and product teardowns."

The manufacturers submitted comments to the U.S. Copyright Office regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which covers software. In its comments, John Deere questions end-users' rights to alter equipment software in an effort--among other things--to circumvent "the purposes for which it was intended," and cites examples of modifying engine controllers or capping speed.

Wiens calls Deere's move a "twisted vision of ownership," asserting that such protection extends beyond these concerns and, in effect, allows equipment manufacturers to curb unnecessarily end-users' ability to modify and repair machines.

"There is no question that John Deere customers own the equipment they purchase," said Jena Holtberg-Benge, Director, John Deere WorkSight. "The Wired editorial’s author is mistaken in suggesting otherwise. However, as with an automobile, ownership of the equipment does not include the right to copy, modify or distribute the computer code that is embedded in that equipment. This is important to us for several reasons, one of the most important being safety. The software embedded in equipment is designed to to ensure the product works the way it was intended. If an unqualified individual were to hack into, or modify that software, the product may no longer comply with safety standards, endangering operators, dealership technicians, and others. Other reasons include compliance with environmental regulations, voiding product warranties, and overall equipment performance."

Wiens says the DMCA has been used in the past by manufacturers to prevent modification, and argues that the law is overreaching in protecting software copyrights.

"The copyright protection that protects licensed software is similar to the protection that extends to a purchased book," Holtberg-Benge said. "Though someone may purchase and own a book, that person does not have the right to copy, modify, or distribute it to others. John Deere makes significant investments on behalf of its customers to develop software that improves equipment efficiency and effectiveness. John Deere, along with other manufacturers and trade organizations, oppose the revision to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, primarily for reasons of safety and environmental emissions compliance, but also because it could be applied to competitors who have not made the same investment John Deere has made.”

The Copyright Office will consider comments, hold a hearing, and make a ruling in July.