Farmers restricted by 18-year-old copyright law

By MP White, Char’Nese Turner, Yutao Chen, Travis Meier

Time is money, and no one understands that more than farmer George Lewis. At 84 years old, he operates his Kingdom City farm with the help of modern technology.

Lewis relies heavily on technology to keep his farm up and running. If his farming equipment breaks down, he must find a dealer to repair it.

Buying the latest machinery comes with an unexpected consequence for farmers: the inability to fix their own equipment.

Due to the inception of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), farmers who try to fix their equipment could end up infringing upon the copyrights for machines they own.

The U.S. Congress approved the DMCA in 1998 as technology was rapidly advancing. The purpose of the act was to stop digital piracy for music and movies.

The act contained a series of provisions that can be split up into two main points: anti-circumvention and safe harbor, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website.

The anti-circumvention policies prevent people from manipulating their machines’ codes to perform hacking or diagnostics. The safe harbor measures ensure that companies are not held liable for their customers infringing the copyrights of other organizations.

Both provisions have caused controversy since organizations like the EFF believes that people should have the right to experiment with and modify the technology they buy. But since the DMCA protects the intellectual property of digital technology, the parent organizations technically own the code used in their products, even if someone legally owns the product.

As technology continues to shift, Congress must create exemptions every three years to include new circumstances. These exemptions allow people to bypass copyrighted code on their devices in an effort to allow fair use for customers.

During the most recent exemption session, Congress granted exemptions to automobile owners in the wake of a pollution cover-up by Volkswagen but have yet to grant an exemption for farming equipment.

This creates a serious problem for farmers who use the latest machinery to harvest crops. Dr. Leon Schumacher, who works for the Agricultural Systems Engineering faculty in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at MU, thinks the advanced technology has changed the relationship between farmers and their machines.

“Farmers tend to be resourceful [and] do a lot of their own service work,” Schumacher said. But that is no longer the case.

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, agrees that reliance on dealerships is a big change for farmers.

“We do most of our repair work,” Hurst said. “But when you get into the software that runs the more technical parts of the machine, we’re not able to repair it, and neither is that third party repairman.”

Those factory repairs cost farmers both time and money. While many manufacturers have mobile repair units, the downtime can ruin a harvest.

“When we’re at peak yield, it’s important for us to get it out right now,” Hurst said. “If we’re delayed two or three days because of mechanical breakdowns, it’s expensive for us.

However, Nathan Atkinson, whose family has owned farms in mid-Missouri for years, believes that farmers have access to all they need to fix their machine’s problems.

“There are a lot of ways to access codes, especially on the newer equipment, without even having to use a piece of software,” Atkinson said. “You can go through all of the controllers on the machine and see what’s wrong with it. So there’s not an issue there.”

Nevertheless, Schumacher thinks there may be a reason why many farmers can’t fully access the technology in their machines.

“When you have this kind of automation... if we were to step in and make an adjustment, it could cause bodily injury and somebody could get hurt,” Schumacher said.

Regardless of opinion, Schumacher believes farmers across the country have to embrace the regulations until an exemption is made.

“The farmer is going to adopt this technology, reluctantly I might add,” Schumacher said. “They’re going to adopt it because it’s going to save them money.”

George Lewis knows this firsthand. He has had to make several repairs since he purchased his combine six years ago. His warranty only lasted two years, and now repairs cost much more money. Just like many other farmers, he doesn’t have much a choice other than adjusting to the ever-evolving nature of modern technology.