The Software Freedom Conservancy is demanding John Deere release tractor code

John Deere isn’t making good on the promises it made when using GPL code, the SFC says.
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Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) says that agricultural equipment giant John Deere is refusing to comply with the terms of its General Public License (GPL) software—and it’s demanding that the company release source code that will allow farmers to repair their own tractors.

At issue is John Deere’s alleged practice of restricting access to software tools that run on modern farm equipment, which critics say prevents farmers from overriding software locks that trigger when sensors and control systems on farm equipment detect failures, and can’t be undone without the assistance of dealerships. Lack of access to source code also prevents farmers from implementing customized functionality.

The SFC says that because Deere machinery contains copyleft code such as Linux distributions, it’s required to release rather than restrict access to it.

In a March blog post, SFC director of compliance Denver Gingerich called on John Deere to release its source code as well as “scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable” for all of its lines of farm equipment. Gingerich added that in some instances, John Deere had released incomplete code, whereas in “many of almost a dozen requests” from the SFC, it had released nothing at all.

In an email statement, John Deere’s PR spokesperson Jen Hartmann said that the company had sent 1.78 gigabytes of code to the SFC and would comply with what it saw as the terms of its GPL licenses.

“We do not, however, support customers modifying embedded software due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment, emissions compliance, engine performance, and uncertainty created in the used equipment market,” the statement continued.

An array of smart devices now offer manufacturers the potential to impose software locks on repair and modification, allowing them to corner the repair market. Bloomberg reported in 2020 that John Deere’s parts and services units are between three and six times more profitable as original equipment sales. (In the tech sector, perfectly functional MacBooks are regularly sold for scrap instead of resale due to security locks.)

“We want users to have the freedom to use their devices as they wish and to make repairs and modifications, so that they can make the device do what they need it to do and not to be stuck waiting for some sort of repair that they could do themselves,” Gingerich told IT Brew. “If it takes a week at the wrong time of the year, the farmer could lose their entire crop. They can’t even ask their friends because the only people with the code with those keys to unlock the tractor when it has an issue are these dealers.”

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Gingerich said that the scripts used to compile and install executables on John Deere equipment were as important as the source code itself, as they allow users to “make meaningful use of the source code that Deere or others would provide.” He told IT Brew that with those scripts, farmers could customize what information is displayed on screens inside tractors, or choose to upload agricultural data on soil and planting to their own storage rather than a proprietary cloud. An additional benefit would be that third parties could maintain the code and push security updates if John Deere abandons the software.

Gingerich emphasized that the SFC also views John Deere’s refusal to release the code as a corporate accountability issue—by using GPL software, it promised to make code built on it available. Preventing farmers from repairing their own tractors or seeking out independent repair shops goes against that spirit, he said.

In January 2023, John Deere’s SVP of sales and marketing, David Gilmore, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the American Farm Bureau Federation in which the company agreed to certain right to repair provisions, such as easing restrictions on manufacturer-made machine parts and providing access to diagnostic tools and manuals on “fair and reasonable terms.” As the American Prospect reported, groups like Farm Action were wary of the MOU, in part because the Farm Bureau agreed not to support expanded state right to repair legislation as part of the deal.

The memorandum does not mention GPL or free/open source licenses and “does not help in any way with their failure to comply with these copyleft licenses,” Gingerich told IT Brew, adding it “does not provide any way for farmers to change the software that’s running on their tractors.”—TM

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From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.