Entrepreneurs understand the value of intellectual property. Although it's possible to overvalue IP protection rather than focusing on getting to market, the right strategy can strengthen your company and weaken competitors.
Or, as farmers have found, IP protection can be a problem when vendors use it to strengthen themselves at your expense. John Deere is a big name in farming equipment, particularly tractors. As has happened with many types of products, electronics and software play an increasing role in tractors. Farmers don't just buy a Deere and fix it as and when they need, like in the old days. Now there's a whole license agreement for the software that runs inside one of the machines. As Vice's Motherboard blog explained this week, the software licensing can make it next to impossible to get equipment repaired when necessary in the field.
Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform "unauthorized" repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time. "When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don't have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it," Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, told his state legislature earlier this month. "Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix]."
The problems for a farmer are manifest and immense. Ever try to haul a non-moving, multi-ton tractor to an authorized repair shop, if there's even one within miles of your farm? If you wait for a representative to show up, you could be risking losing a significant portion of a crop you need to get to market. Farmers have often repaired their own equipment to control costs and, most importantly, get the immediate attention they need. To say nothing of the increased costs someone faces when information and access to services is restricted and controlled.
That can be the way of the machinery world these days and well beyond tractors. Diagnosing problems with automobiles can be difficult for mechanics unless they have the equipment to download and translate error codes into diagnostic information. Manufacturers wanted authorized dealers to keep repair business (one could argue whether that was to safeguard IP or to channel money to affiliated organizations). Independent and chain repair shops and auto part stores wanted access. There was eventually resolution based on a Massachusetts law, but even then a common format for diagnostic codes and information wouldn't be available until 2018.
The so-called right to repair issue doesn't stop with the auto industry but extends into all aspects of electronics. Necessary information is often restricted to authorized repair centers only. Critical aspects of devices are treated as intellectual property, with buyers having ceded rights in licensing agreements. That means your smartphone, digital camera, laptop, postage meter, copier, factory equipment, or other device that is critical to your business might be at the mercy of the IP-protected repair business. Even if independent technicians might be able to help in theory, they often can't in practice.
There have been attempts, as with the auto industry, to push for relief on the legislative front. Nebraska has considered such legislation, as did Minnesota, but tech industry lobbyists allegedly helped stop the measures.
Farmers are taking an interesting approach, as Motherboard reported. They're using black market hacked Deere software that they get from Ukraine, but that likely violates a licensing agreement that the company reportedly has farmers sign these days, which makes such a move a breach of contract. When Motherboard asked John Deere about the issue, the company reportedly claimed that its customers had no repair problems.
Entrepreneurs in general already face licensing agreements. Part of buying any equipment these days should be the proven surety that you are allowed to modify or fix the device because you're the one who bought it. If that tanks a warranty, consider the potential consequences. If the agreement does more and lets the company sue you, considering finding another vendor. Or look at older equipment that may still be serviceable -- in more ways than one.