Janine Jackson: Copyright and farmers don’t generally appear in the same story. They do now, thanks to the argument, recently reiterated by agricultural machine maker John Deere, that farmers shouldn’t be able to independently access the operating software in their tractors, for example, because they don’t own that part, they just license it. As our next guest has explained, the line is, “Old McDonald has a tractor, but he owns a massive barn ornament, because the manufacturer holds the rights to the programming that makes it run.”
The ongoing fight highlights not just our increasingly wired world, but the ceaseless encroachments of corporations into physical and intellectual space. Kyle Wiens thinks and acts on these issues. He’s co-founder and CEO of iFixit, the online repair community and parts retailer. He joins us now by phone from California. Welcome to CounterSpin, Kyle Wiens.
Kyle Wiens: Hey, thanks for having me on.
Well, John Deere is not alone in this, naturally. What is the core of these companies’ argument, and what legal leg are they claiming to stand on?
What’s happening is that they want to control everything that happens with the life cycle of the product. With farm equipment in particular, the data that the equipment collects is actually worth a lot of money to John Deere. They’re using every means possible to lock down what happens. They want to make sure that if you need to get it repaired, you go to the John Deere dealership rather than doing the repair yourself.
The way that they’re doing that is they’re saying, hey, it might be a tractor, but it has a computer in it, and we own the software on the computer. And you have an implied license to operate the software on the tractor, but you don’t actually own the software that’s on the tractor. And that’s the point I really disagree with them on. I think that if you bought a tractor it’s yours, and you should be able to do what you want with it.
And they’re claiming it’s a violation of copyright somehow or at least that was their initial argument. Now they maybe have tweaked that with this licensing agreement, with tiny print. But a lot of these companies are saying that this is an issue of copyright?
There’s a few different ways that they go at it. One is, back in 1998, when we updated the Copyright Act and passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or the DMCA, they put a clause in there that said that it was illegal to circumvent a technological lock. And that was originally designed to prevent people from pirating DVDs. So they put locks or encryption on the DVDs to make it hard for people to copy them, and they said, we want to make it illegal to break that lock. And what’s happened since then is the kind of locks that they put on DVDs now are in tractors, and in our cell phones and all kinds of other products that we have.
And they have made the argument, haven’t they, that somehow locking people out, it prevents harms if they try to repair something and they get injured. But then there’s also a line that somehow it spurs innovation in technology. Does that make any sense?
No, it doesn’t make any sense at all, and that’s just kind of a bogus claim that they’ll make. It really just comes down to monopoly control of the aftermarket. They want to make as much money as they can on service, and they want to make sure that the data is streaming back to them. If you talk to farmers, that’s really the nutshell. With the older equipment, farmers are absolutely able to maintain it themselves; it’s really only the newer equipment. And these are fairly sophisticated machines. I’m talking tractors with touchscreen.
At one point, one of the arguments that John Deere said was that they didn’t want people to be able to modify the software in the tractors because they might then use the tractors to pirate Taylor Swift music. And that sounds crazy, but it actually technically might be possible. Like there’s a full-blown computer on the tractor, so you might be able to install Bit Torrent or something and do that. But clearly that’s not the real reason they’re trying to lock down the equipment.
That sounds like a real bank shot. Well, it sounds like Monsanto patenting seeds and then telling farmers they can’t save them year to year, because the technology of the seed belongs to Monsanto. It’s the sort of thing that you think, well, this is too craven to actually be happening, and yet here it is.
In your work, you make a number of interesting points, one of which is, what about when the company then just decides they don’t want to repair that device anymore, or they don’t want to make the parts for that anymore?
They can absolutely just decide repair isn’t an option anymore, and that’s something that we’ve seen folks like Apple and Samsung do. It’s very hard to get the screen on a Samsung phone fixed, because Samsung just won’t sell repair parts. We see this over and over again, where manufacturers will lock down the aftermarket. There’s a problem with the iPhone 7 right now. If you break the home button on the iPhone 7, there’s no way to fix it, because repairing it requires a special calibration machine only Apple has, and they refuse to sell it to aftermarket repair shops.
As you say, it really is criminalizing repair, which seems like such a strange kind of value to be pushing. But I just would underscore for folks who think, oh well, yes, it’s an irritation, you need to buy a new phone every few years, and they’re kind of forcing you into that. But you point out that, for one thing, there’s an environmental impact to that. It’s really a societal-level question that we should be thinking about.
Yes, there’s a huge amount of raw material that goes into these things. It’s really an environmental imperative to figure out how we can make things last as long as possible. You know, repair jobs are green jobs, and they need time. You can fix a cell phone, or keep some device that you have working longer. It prevents having to manufacture a new one. So that’s a fantastic thing.
And fortunately — I mean, this sounds all doom and gloom, these manufacturers are doing all these evil things, and everyone’s going to start doing it soon. There actually is hope on the horizon. This year, 11 states have introduced right-to-repair legislation that would require manufacturers to help farmers, and local self-owned repair shops and others, stay in business.
Well, it’s not insignificant that automakers are prominent here. How do you think that this story relates to, for example, what happened with Volkswagen?
Yes, it’s interesting. So before the Volkswagen case came out, I was actually arguing for an exception to the copyright law to be able to do repairs on vehicles. And the Association for Global Automakers, which included Volkswagen, was at the table across from me negotiating, and they said that the automakers were the only ones that should be trusted to manipulate emission settings on vehicles, and that no one else should have access to the software. And then three months later, we found out that they’d been manipulating the emissions readings.
It’s the same things with TVs. Samsung and LG were caught cheating on energy efficiency ratings in TVs the exact same way that Volkswagen was: When it read that the test code was being played, they had different energy outputs than the rest of the time.
So we have to find a way that the rest of us can inspect and verify. It’s OK for manufacturers to make these products, they can certify them, but there needs to be a mechanism for third-party auditors to come in and inspect the source code, and for the rest of us to be able to fix it if it breaks.
And finally, I know that repair is at the core of what you do, and I wonder if you could explain the power of the teardown. Because I think that it has not just an immediate value of showing people how things work, things that are often very mysterious, but it sends a kind of message about, dare I say, consumer empowerment. Can you let us know briefly what the teardown is, and how it fits with what we’re talking about here?
Sure, yeah. So I run a company called iFixit, and every time a new gizmo comes out, we get our hands on it however we can. So we’ll go to the Apple Store and we’ll wait in line, we’ll fly overseas wherever we have to go to get it, and we take it apart and we post pictures online of what’s inside. So the day the iPhone 7 came out, we got the iPhone and we took it apart and we showed all the bits and pieces inside: the microphone, the USB connector and everything that’s inside the phone, and we explain how it works.
And we do that for two reasons. One is we wanted to demystify technology; we want people to understand a little bit of what goes inside, and make it so we’re not afraid to take apart a phone. Because, actually, if you need to put a new battery in your iPhone, it’s actually very easy. That’s the first reason.
The second reason is that we want to encourage people to buy products that are easy to repair. And so we’ll give it a repairability score, and we rate products on how easy or hard they are to fix. So actually right now, it’s easier to fix an iPhone than a Samsung S8, so if you’re thinking about buying an S8, consider buying an iPhone instead, or possibly something like the Google Pixel that’s even easier.
People can get engaged with the right-to-repair legislation that’s moving right now, and New York and Massachusetts are two very good places, where I think you probably have a lot of listenership, where they can get engaged immediately. Things are going to happen in the next month or two that will dictate whether we’ll get right-to-repair passed this year or not.
But the idea is, you can do it.
You absolutely can.
Well, thank you very much, Kyle Wiens of iFixit, for joining us this week on CounterSpin. You can find that work online at iFixit.com. Thanks again, Kyle Wiens.
Thank you. And you can get involved in the right-to-repair movement over at Repair.org.