Do You Own Your Stuff?

John Deere 8760 farm tractor with a folded farm tractor disc attached driving down a country road in Indiana.
John Deere 8760 farm tractor with a folded farm tractor disc attached driving down a country road in Indiana.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a technology issue, but a recent article from Wired deserves widespread attention: We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership. If you didn’t know that John Deere wasn’t out to destroy the concept of ownership, you’re not alone. But it’s actually not a very new argument. The idea is that you may be able to own physical property, but you can only license software. The trouble, of course, is that an awful lot of physical property does you absolutely no good without the software to run it, and so if you don’t own the software you don’t really own the physical property either. What good is a tractor you can’t turn on? Or a car that won’t drive? There’s a reason that the verb for utterly breaking a piece of hardware by destroying the software is “bricked” as in “to render an electrical gadget as useful as a brick.”

I encourage you to read the article to learn more: it’s mostly about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and whether or not property owners will be guaranteed the right to modify, hack, repair, tinker, and customize their own devices. I’m also curious to hear from folks–especially law-folks–who might know a little bit more about this issue than I do. It’s not like ownership is actually always a trivial concept, and figuring out how to split the rights of consumers to their own property vs. the rights of companies to control their software is probably not going to be a no-brainer in all cases.

Still, the lengths to which John Deere, General Motors, and other corporations seem willing to go to seem like some weird hybrid of amusing and sinister.

3 thoughts on “Do You Own Your Stuff?”

  1. This is not an area of expertise; I am a casual observer. And/but it seems to me that there are three questions or propositions to consider:
    1. “Information wants to be free.” As a positive, referencing the ease of copying and transmission, there’s something to it. And therefore managing and controlling information is challenging. But as a normative it sounds in revolution and anarchy. Information (including software) has cost and value and is property in any sense that matters, notwithstanding the ease of perfect copying.
    2. “Drawing the property rights line at copying creates a bunch of problems.” This is almost certainly true. Cf John Deere.
    3. “Until we find a better way . . .” What? Information should be free? Or we should live with the problems created by a copying line? In the real world we’re going to do the latter, ameliorating (but not eliminating) some of the problems by selective enforcement, such as to tolerate quiet personal use copying. Of course selective enforcement has it’s own problems, including that it is not official and not enforceable.

  2. I’ll have to be careful of what I say, as I used to work in the industry.

    First, many equipment dealers (farm, forklift, construction) are pushing for this too. They regard it as a fantastic way to kill off the competition, after all, without the proper device that can talk to the software (and which understands the Digital Restrictions Management) no one can work on anything.

    Second, there’s this law in California which states that all diagnostic materials must be made available to anyone. I suspect that this is seen as a way around that law.

    Third, the DMCA is not compliant with the Internet Copyright Treaties. This is the black cat in the coal cellar – what happens when the TPP Treaty takes effect, and copyright law has to be re-written…

    Fourth, there is no give in the DMCA. One early form of Music CD Copy Protection could be bypassed by using a magic marker on the outer edge of the CD. There are a wide variety of other ‘copy protection technologies’ which are as easily bypassed, however the law says that even if the copy protection is a total piece of garbage that a two year old can bypass by banging on a keyboard, that it is still illegal to bypass the copy protection.

    The DMCA needs to be rescinded.

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