The U.S. Copyright Office is expected to issue a ruling this month clarifying what you can or can’t do with things you buy that are operated by software — which nowadays includes just about everything from the coffeemaker in your kitchen to your pickup or that fancy new tractor or combine.
Clarification not exactly being a concept widely practiced in a town dominated by lawyers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats, the decision will be yet another waypoint in the ever more complicated issue of property rights spawned by the digital age.
The tech magazine Wired created a stir in April with an article by Kyle Wiens, “We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership” (http://wrd.cm/1DA5jGT), positing that although you pay a hundred grand or more for a new tractor or $50k for a new GM car, you don’t really own that tractor or car because the company owns and controls the software that makes it do all the things it does.
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The article notes that over the last two decades manufacturers have used the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act to argue that buyers don’t own the software that powers the products they’ve bought, that they have only an implied use license, which doesn’t include the right to alter software.
Modifying tractors and other farm equipment has long been something of a badge of pride for many farmers, who have put creativity and ingenuity to work to make machines fit specific needs manufacturers didn’t envision. But, that has become more challenging as equipment functions are increasingly software controlled.
GM, Deere, and others contend that, sans copyright protection, there could be pirating of valuable intellectual property, as well as safety/environmental issues if altered software were responsible for an accident, increased emissions, or poor performance.
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Deere says it, like other manufacturers, simply seeks to protect the software for which it has spent a lot of time and money developing, that it doesn’t want people tinkering with how their equipment is designed to operate.
So, it pretty much comes down to this: Yes, you own the tractor or GM car or toaster or fridge, but the software — every single line of computer code that makes it run — is not yours.