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John Deere urged to surrender source code under GPL

Farmers need a right to repair

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) has called upon farm equipment maker John Deere to comply with its obligations under the General Public License (GPL), which requires users of such software to share source code.

In a blog post published on Thursday, SFC director of compliance Denver Gingerich argues that farmers' ability to repair their tools is now in jeopardy because the makers of those tools have used GPL-covered software and have failed to live up to licensing commitments.

"Sadly, farm equipment manufacturers, who benefit immensely from the readily-available software that they can provide as part of the farming tools (tractors, combines, etc.) they sell to farmers, are not complying with the right to repair licenses of the software they have chosen to use in these farming tools," said Gingerich.

"As a result, farmers are cut off from their livelihood if the farm equipment manufacturer does not wish to repair their farming tools when they inevitably fail, even when the farmer could easily perform the repairs on their own, or with the help of someone else they know."

Gingerich singled out Moline, Illinois-based John Deere as a particularly egregious offender. He said that for years the SFC has attempted to work with John Deere to resolve the company's non-compliance, but the agricultural equipment maker has failed to cooperate.

"When Deere does reply (we have heard from others that their legitimate requests for source code have been met with silence), they have always failed to include the 'scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable,' per GPLv2," Gingerich told The Register.

"And even when we were already engaged with them, and asked for source for an additional product, it took more than 10 months for them to send us the first (again, incomplete) package, which makes their offer for source hollow."

Living up to the deal?

For years, repair advocates have complained about the barriers that prevent independent farmers from fixing their own John Deere equipment. But lately, those objections appear to be having some effect.

Facing multiple lawsuits from farmers, who now have the support of the Justice Department and the White House, John Deere in January struck a deal [PDF] with the American Farm Bureau Federation to provide farmers with greater access to the internal workings of company's equipment.

While repair advocates considered the deal a win, they remain cautious because the company struck a similar bargain in 2018 that proved insufficient – that deal did not provide access to tools for resetting security and immobilizer locks.

As the SFC sees it, the right to repair can be best served through John Deere's compliance with the GPL.

"As we have been doing privately for multiple years, we now publicly call on John Deere to immediately resolve all of its outstanding GPL violations, across all lines of its farm equipment, by providing complete source code, including 'the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable' that the GPL and other copyleft licenses require, to the farmers and others who are entitled to it, by the licenses that Deere chose to use," said Gingerich in his post.

Gingerich told us that the most widely-deployed GPL-covered software in Deere machinery is Linux. "As with most Linux distributions, it uses several other programs under copyleft (i.e. right to repair) licenses as well," he said.

Gingerich said the SFC supports the other organizations challenging John Deere over alleged violations of agreements and laws, including antitrust challenges.

Asked whether the SFC might consider legal action, Gingerich said, "Existing litigation is focused on gaining access to the software used by the dealerships to help fix the tractors, which is also important. SFC is requesting the complete corresponding source code for the software that runs on the farm equipment itself, as Deere is required to provide by the licenses of the software they use."

John Deere did not immediately respond to a request for comment. ®

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