Farming equipment manufactured today has more software than ever before. The increased sophistication of this equipment has benefitted the agricultural industry in significant ways. For example, the integration of newer technologies into agricultural implements has resulted in measurable gains in productivity, yields, and revenue. However, the increasing sophistication of technology is not without drawbacks. As many farmers and producers have discovered, manufacturers have sometimes imposed various restrictions and policies that limit the ability of equipment owners to make repairs to their own equipment or take their equipment to a local repair shop. These restrictions can take many forms, from limiting the availability of certain parts, repair manuals, and diagnostic tools, to software locks and lockouts. This occasionally results in increased costs, delays, and headaches for in agriculture where timing is critical and equipment is purchased, maintained, and expected to last. That is where right to repair laws come in.
What Are Right to Repair Laws?
Right to repair laws are designed to require manufacturers to make repair tools, parts, and software available to consumers and independent repair shops on fair and reasonable terms. As such, these laws are intended to reduce the maintenance costs and increase the convenience and availability of repairs. This is critical to farmers and producers who rely on their equipment to keep their farming operations productive.
Federal Right to Repair
In 2021, the President of the United States signed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) to address certain “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party or self-repair” efforts, specifically identifying certain “restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.” In response, the FTC increased its enforcement against illegal repair restrictions. However, those actions are primarily aimed at unfair competition, deceptive conduct, and unlawful “tying,” which is the practice of tying a manufacturer’s warranty to the use of a specific service provider. As of this writing, there has been no direct action by the FTC against agricultural equipment manufacturers.
However, in 2022 various farmers and producers filed a class action antitrust lawsuit against John Deere alleging various violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act related to restrictions on software and repair tools necessary for the repair and maintenance of equipment with engine control units. The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division voiced its support for the plaintiffs in that lawsuit in a statement of intent filed with the court on February 14, 2023. That litigation remains ongoing. Around this same timeframe, on January 8, 2023, John Deere issued a Memorandum of Understanding between itself and the American Farm Bureau Federation (“AFBF”) stating that John Deere would “ensure that Farmers and Independent Repair Facilities will be able to access and obtain, per subscription or sale, [John Deere’s] tools, Specialty Tools, Software, and Documentation” on fair and reasonable terms. However, this memorandum is legally unenforceable and contains multiple limitations, including a requirement that the AFBF “encourage state Farm Bureaus to refrain from introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state right to repair legislation” that may impose obligations beyond what John Deere and the AFBF agreed to in their memorandum.
On the Congressional front, in February 2022 a bill named the Agricultural Right to Repair Act was introduced in the Senate. This bill would have required equipment manufacturers to “make available certain documentation, parts, software, and tools” for electronically enabled agricultural equipment. However, this bill did not make it out of committee during the last Congressional term.
Right to Repair in Minnesota
Currently, Minnesota does not have a right to repair law. However, in February 2023, Minnesota joined the increasing number of states with proposed right to repair bills when legislation titled the Digital Fair Repair Act was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives. This proposed legislation would require that original equipment manufacturers make documentation, parts, and tools, including software, available to independent repair providers and equipment owners on fair and reasonable terms for diagnostic, maintenance, or repair purposes. Should this bill pass, farmers and producers would be able to obtain certain software necessary to diagnose and repair their equipment directly from the manufacturer on fair and reasonable terms, without being compelled to contract with a specific repair provider authorized by the manufacturer. While the days of making most repairs to a tractor with only a wrench set, hammer, and ingenuity are probably behind us, the Digital Fair Repair Act would allow farmers and producers to exercise more control over the equipment they own. This will undoubtedly be of great interest to farmers and producers in Minnesota who rely on their equipment to put food on the table for people across the county and around the world.