Deere & Co won't give out software and data needed for repairs, watchdog told

Farming groups demand some kind of actual action from regulators

Updated Twelve farm labor, advocacy, and repair groups filed a complaint last week with the US Federal Trade Commission claiming that agricultural equipment maker Deere & Company has unlawfully refused to provide the software and technical data necessary to repair its machinery.

The groups include National Farmers Union, Iowa Farmers Union, Missouri Farmers Union, Montana Farmers Union, Nebraska Farmers Union, Ohio Farmers Union, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Farm Action, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, the Digital Right to Repair Coalition, and iFixit.

They contend that Deere & Company owns over 50 per cent of the agricultural machinery market in the US and has deliberately restricted access to its diagnostic software and other information necessary to repair its products in violation of the Sherman Act and statutes covering unfair and deceptive trade practice. And they're asking the FTC to intervene by putting an end to these practices.

"Deere is the dominant force in the $68 billion US agricultural equipment market, controlling over 50 per cent of the market for large tractors and combines," said Jamie Crooks, attorney from Fairmark Partners, which represents the farm and repair groups, in a preface to the complaint [PDF].

"For many farmers and ranchers, they effectively have no choice but to purchase their equipment from Deere. Not satisfied with dominating just the market for equipment, Deere has sought to leverage its power in that market to monopolize the market for repairs of that equipment, to the detriment of farmers, ranchers, and independent repair providers."

Right-to-repair kicking up a gear

Objections to Deere & Company's practices, part of a broader pushback against digital lock protections built into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, go back many years. Initially the province of cyber liberties activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, digital repair concerns have come to the attention of lawmakers in the US, the UK and Europe.

In January, Deere & Company was hit with two lawsuits, one in Illinois and the other in Alabama, over the company's repair restrictions, and US President Joe Biden voiced support for repair rights. Then in February, US lawmakers in the House of Representatives and in the Senate introduced separate bills to guarantee the right to repair.

When states began to consider right to repair legislation in 2018, Deere & Company, through an affiliated trade organization, said by January 1, 2021 it would provide tools through authorized dealers "to empower farmers and ranchers to perform basic service, maintenance and repairs on their equipment."

Crooks observes that 2021 has come and gone without this commitment being met. Instead, Deere & Company provides repair information only if farmers and ranchers pay thousands of dollars up front for a service called Customer Service Advisor, which still does not enable them to perform common repairs on their own. Citing this misrepresentation, the complaint asks the FTC to intervene.

The legal filing cites several examples of the impact Deere & Company's practices have had on farmers. It recounts how Jared Wilson, a farmer near Butler, Missouri, experienced a mechanical valve failure on a Deere fertilizer spreader that sent the machinery into "limp mode" until the software error code could be resolved by a Deere-authorized technician. Wilson had to take his equipment to the dealer and wait 32 days for a repair, resulting in an estimated loss of $30,000 to $60,000 because he could not use the machinery.

What's more, the complaint says it appears that Deere & Company is gathering data from farmers and using that information to provide optimization techniques to other farmers, eroding potential points of competitive differentiation among its customers.

"These are techniques farmers have developed and keep secret for a competitive advantage over their rivals," the complaint says. "But if they use a Deere machine with JDLink, farmers are revealing those techniques for Deere to profit off of."

The FTC filing also suggests a rationale for Deere & Company's behavior: It alleges that the repair business is three to six times more profitable than the agricultural machinery sales business.

Deere & Company did not respond to a request for comment. ®

Updated to add

"John Deere supports a customer's right to safely maintain, diagnose, and repair their own equipment. To facilitate this, Deere provides the tools, parts, information guides, training videos and manuals needed for farmers to work on their machines, including remote access for technicians to provide long-distance support," the agri-giant told The Register.

"John Deere does not support the right to modify embedded software due to the risks associated with the safe operation of equipment, emissions compliance, and engine performance. We remain committed to providing innovative solutions that support our customers' needs."

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