John Deere loses battle in “Right to Repair” war

Bill Krzyzanowski Photography/ John Deere

The saga of consumers’ “right to repair” their vehicles has waged in the courts for years, but a shift came yesterday as American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The six-page document, which you can read here, places farmers and independent repair shops in the driver’s seat when it comes to maintaining tractors. However, the agreement is not as final—or as binding—as Right to Repair advocates would hope.

Unfamiliar with the debate? Hagerty’s Rob Siegel lays it out in this article from 2020

The term “Right to Repair” (sometimes abbreviated as “R2R”) is both general and specific. In a broad sense, it refers to a number of consumer rights initiatives where owners of goods—from automobiles to farm machinery to electronics—push for the right to take these products somewhere other than the dealer to be fixed at a reasonable cost, and that’s where vehicle manufacturers (VMs) push back, touting trademark issues and trade secret concerns. As cars have gotten more and more complex, these battles generally aren’t over nuts and bolts—they’re over hardware, software, access to data, and the money that that brings. No VM is asserting you don’t have the right to change a flat tire or replace a wiper blade yourself.

The MOU is signed by a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents consumers, and by Deere and Company. It outlines how the manufacturer will allow both private individuals and independent repair facilities to access and repair anything on a piece of Deere equipment. Resources are now available to farms and to shops that John Deere had refused to share: everything from software required to read the data from the onboard diagnostic systems to specialty tools needed to perform physical maintenance.

Of course, the manufacturer support won’t be free, as the wording of the memorandum does make frequent use of “Fair and Reasonable terms.”

The memorandum represents a big win for consumers, but because the document represents an agreement reached outside a court of law, it cannot serve as legal precedent in future lawsuits. The Right to Repair war is far from over.

One of the interesting bits of legalese in the brief document lies in the definition of the MOU’s purpose, which is to “assure that the intellectual property of Manufacturer, including copyrighted software, is fully protected from illegal infringement through the modification of Embedded Software.”

That copyrighted software—used to diagnose tractors and equipment on-site—is what started this legal battle. Since farmers and shops did not have access to the software, they had to schedule a visit from a dealer authorized to use the software, or take their broken-down tractor into an authorized dealer themselves.

If that lack of manufacturer support surprises you, remember that John Deere just announced a fully autonomous tractor at 2023’s Consumer Electronics Show.

2023 CES autonomous self-driving tractor
John Deere

Buried deeper in the memorandum is a single sentence that carries a lot of weight given the history of litigation regarding the topic of Right to Repair. The phrasing indicates that this MOU is essentially a dodge to keep regulators from stepping into the fray: “In the event that Manufacturer or AFBF concludes that, due to changed circumstances, the MOU may no longer be viable, that party shall provide written notice to the other party of its intent to withdraw from the MOU due to the change in circumstances.”

That sentence provides an out, and would likely reopen lawsuits should it be used by either party. John Deere seems dedicated to avoiding a revived case, as it mentions plans to meet with AFBF at least twice a year to evaluate progress.

The memorandum follows an executive order given in July of 2021 by the Biden administration to the Federal Trade Commission, asking the FTC to draft policy that fights “unfair anticompetitive restrictions.” Included in that category would be John Deere’s (previous) refusal to share this diagnostic software, since such a stance makes it difficult for buyers to repair their products or hire the shop of their choice to do the repair for them. The FTC quickly and unanimously voted to ramp-up enforcement of Right to Repair laws following that executive order, though all’s been quiet since.

Could this memorandum of understanding be an attempt by Deere to get minimal or lighter treatment as the FTC drafts the legislation demanded in July? We can’t say, but there is a lot of potential for this agreement and process to become a template for other brands and manufacturers in the future.

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    Deere greatly underestimated how bad this was for their image –basically slapping the hands that have waved their flag for generations.

    This battle remains vital, as the Tesla service model is the opposite direction of what is good for “the people”.

    I hope we can get Alfa Romeo and all Stellantis products to give owners access to reset our oil change and service reminders. Their Security gateway module is just an excuse to make you go to the dealer for service.

    As a new car Dealer, I fully understand your frustration with the oil change reminder light. But, it was put there as a reminder to the many customers who never (or seldom) change their oil. On this website, we are all car people, so oil changes and general maintenance is important to us and almost always done. When purchasing a new car, every customer is reminded of oil change intervals and to follow the owner’s manual for routine maintenance to keep your new car in proper running condition. You won’t believe how many people don’t change their oil! We have seen numerous examples of people coming in for a warranty repair, only for us to discover that they have gone 18,000 to 22,000 miles on their last oil change. The first thing that a manufacturer asks the dealer (if a vehicle comes in for a warranty issue on an engine), is to see the oil change history. If the customer exceeds the oil change intervals, it makes it almost impossible for a dealer to perform the repair and get reimbursed from the factory. Even though our dealerships send out reminders to customers to have their oil changed, sometimes they go unanswered. Even if you don’t come back to the dealer for an oil change, please change your oil at an establishment where you can retain your records and RECEIPTS! The manufacturer will want proof if a warranty repair is required on their engine/transmission.

    Hi, JimS:

    I agree that the oil change reminder light, among other service reminders, is a great way to help some owners ensure their vehicles are properly maintained. But that doesn’t preclude making it possible for owners to shut off those reminders when they have performed the maintenance themselves or had an independent shop do the work.

    I recently had to replace my battery which required “re-training” the car that a new battery was installed. I get the purpose of that, as it helps the car avoid over-loading the battery with non-essential electrical items when its power output becomes low near its end-of-life. Yet an owner shouldn’t have to search YouTube for the magic combination of power-on, power-off, flick the wipers three times, press this button then that button before 30 seconds is up. A menu on the touch screen would be an easy way to provide these reminders/resets for non-critical issues.

    Took my SUV in for a transmission flush, the guy said “filled for life” and dealer refused to do it.
    Independent shop agreed to do with with OE fluid. Total Exchange.
    Got a “bulletin” about getting the transmission checked for oil quality. Ok. Guy said wow, looks great for 118k. I said I’ve flushed it 3x since new. He had a look of astonishment. I guess they have a mileage point where the sell a reman trans or up sell into a new machine.

    If you wait for the oil change light, it is too late.

    Oil and fluids are cheap, just change it and recycle it. No problems.

    On a GM car all you have to do to reset the Oil Life Monitor is to ” Turn the key to the run position , do not start the car , push the accelerator pedal to the floor THREE times and turn the key off. This wil reset ther monitor to 99%

    When vehicles started getting so complex and computerized, with sensors for darned-near everything you could imagine (and a few that you could not), this battle was inevitable. I can certainly see the VM point-of-view – wanting to keep things proprietary – but the American shade tree mechanic ethos (arguably BEST embodied by farmers and ranchers) has long been entrenched in fixing their own equipment whenever possible.
    Consumers may be their own worst enemies, however, as they demand everything from heated steering wheels to complete vehicular diagnostics and feedback. The readers of this venue – mainly classic and vintage car owners – will vote for a return to more simple vehicle systems, which can more easily be serviced in the owner’s driveway. But “progress” will not allow that – so this fight will continue ad infinitum.

    I understand both sides of this.

    One I am from a family with many farmers and most are very good mechanics and can fix about anything.

    But I also understand Deere who is being held responsible for emissions for a length of time wanting to control what is done so they are not fixing others issues.

    This is why most automakers are getting tougher on any programming changes to their own programming. In some cases it hurts the emissions and the government can come back on the MFG. They have already hit some. Also some changes can damage engines. I recall the GTP GP came out with the series 3 SC engine and they removed the torque control and the added too much boost an broke pistons and destroyed the transmission.

    This will become an even more intense battle ground.

    @hyperv6 thanks for the insight from the farmers’ perspective. As I understand it the battleground is over diagnostic software, not operational software. Farmers want to be able to have someone other than JD diagnose the problems with their machines. The OBD2 standard — a US government regulatory mandate — took a huge step towards making diagnostics generic in automobiles. Perhaps a similar standard is needed for other machinery, especially as the computer control and complexity grows.

    Grand pop retired from Deere after 43 years, top level engineering exec in the Moline, IL HQ.

    The backlash has been severe. Older models are seeing spikes in values, independent repairs and Tier 2 parts are exploding.

    You’re right on the emissions to a point, they are excluded from liability is tampering is confirmed.

    This is a bigger issue and it is less about intellectual content as it is lifecycle control.

    Agreed snailish. I am happy to see some progress on this issue. I would be more accepting of this one service provider model only if the built in planned obsolescence was acknowledged and removed. We are using 50 year old equipment today because it was built to last and if it didn’t last, it could be reasonably repaired and put back in service. I’m not a fan of the corporate model of just lease the latest and greatest while we chip away at you profit margin with fees and service.

    Another product line which falls under Right to Repair is wristwatches. R*lex actively discourages independent watchmakers and doesn’t supply parts. The most common repair parts are available aftermarket, but if you need anything the least bit unusual, it has to go to an authorized R*lex repair shop, and it is going to cost you. Swatch group (Rado and many other brands) also won’t supply parts but some are available overseas. Swatch also owns ETA, which makes the movements for a LOT of watches, and they are thinking about restricting sales to outside (independent) brands, which will then go out of business, reducing competition to Swatch brands. This Right to Repair is FAR from over.

    I have been talking about this for years. The whole electric autonomous industry is backwards. For electric cars, build the charging infrastructure and parts stock first then distribute the cars. In the early days for
    Volkswagen coming to America they sent parts first, then cars. American Dealers were amazed. I can afford a
    Tesla and won’t buy one because a) I’m not impressed with Elon and b) as mentioned, their business plan is backwards. John Deere deserves to lose. All this nonsense about keeping vital servicing information in house and refusing to give it to the user is an insult to folks who have been fixing their own product for years. Manufacturers need to grow up about this issue.

    To Hagerty:
    It’s taking forever to load your site onto my computer. I’m not familiar with technology; I am with cars and really enjoy your site. I am a member of the community. Please address this if its anything on your side. Thank you.

    Maestro: try deleting cookies; running a good diagnostic program that will get rid of any malware that can possibly slow it down. I’m not a tech guy by any means but these are simple procedures anyone can do.

    for the last 5 years everyone I know has quit buying John Deere tractors and sold the newer ones they bought, pretty soon they will be going out of business. computers are just like your brain, inputs and outputs simple really an tunable automotive computer could easily be adapted to the tractors. bypassing John Deere all together.

    just like electric cars are not feasible, I’m looking forward to converting them to hot rods. same thing is doable with tractors, and they will be easily emissions compliant, get better fuel economy.

    John Deere needs to lose badly on this so no one tries this again. Personally I think John Deere created a huge gateway for families who would never do anything but JD to look at more friendly alternatives.

    I also have little hope the government will do the right thing for the consumer.

    This is good news but a fundamental issue unlikely to be addressed is the lack of balancing maintainability with reliability and efficiency as part of design. As a mechanical engineer, I feel we blew past the point where preventative and corrective maintenance requirements needed to be offset by increased reliability and efficiency at some point in the 80s and 90s. Although maintenance requirements may have deceased in frequency, now when they do occur, they’ve grown exponentially in cost, and/or complexity. When it comes to a daily driver, the net benefits of efficiency gains are questionable as vehicles have continued to become larger and heavier. Performance improvements as they directly impact the objectives of basic transportation are actually insignificant and have come at tremendous increased costs to the consumer. Accelerating to the speed limit 4s quicker is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on a commute when other factors are considered. I do agree as others have mentioned that customer demands of what is considered acceptable basic transportation keep pushing things in the other direction and have resulted in most vehicles being high performance luxury products that exceed a Saturn V rocket in complexity, with a price tag to match. So for now, as a dinosaur, I’ll keep wrenching on my 84 purchased for $1000 in 94 and in spite of the hardship of the seats and steering wheel not being heated, I think I will still make it from A to B and will not be beholden to a bank to finance me or some OEM to tell me what’s wrong whenever I have the slightest issue.

    According to one of the leading advocates for right to repair (Louis Rossmann) this MOU is not all it’s made out to be. Specifically, he got a farmers perspective on the new found MOU by Deere, and the farmer was less than impressed. The respective YouTube video is; Wonder how many journalists who wrote the published articles checked with the actual users (farmers)?

    Withholding simple service information from consumers by denying them access to it can lead to real safety issues. Ducati will not sell service manuals or provide basic service information to owners of their machines. Want the torques specs for brake calipers because they had to be removed to replace a worn tire? Can’t get it. Just guess at what might be a safe torque spec. Want to adjust the chain on your bike. Owners manual says to take the bike to the dealer. For a chain adjustment? Ridiculous and negligent. And unfortunately, nearly every bike and auto manufacture is involved in the same scam. Most vehicle owners are not looking to hack the ECM or steal their software. We just want to do repairs and maintenance in an appropriate and safe way. Here’s hoping we see some new regulations that make this behavior illegal.

    Occurs to me that when we are about to buy a new (whatever) we ought to inquire as to the availability of parts and service information. If there are no parts available to us, the owners, and service information is top secret, we should vote with our wallets and buy something else – informing the dealer or vendor exactly WHY we are taking our business directly to their competitors, and that we are doing it today.

    Eventually they might get the message, or somebody will start making products specifically designed to be repairable, with parts and service information available, and then that new company will promptly eat the dinosaur companies’ lunch AND dinner. Take my motorcycle in to the dealer to adjust the chain? That’s nuts, I’m sticking with my pre-1970 BMW twins, which I *can* fix (which they rarely need and which don’t have a chain anyway).

    Way to go Aslong there areother Alternatives ( Competition ) Due Diligence before Buying anything will help the Consumer and put the Greedy Corps out of Business We hav’nt needed al that Electronic Junk to Farm the Fields and we sure don’t need it now ( Horses didn’t have any) and they worked just fine HA HA HA

    Being a farmer and a classic car owner, I’m very pleased that Deere has eased up on this. I don’t own a Deere tractor and never will because of the expence of parts as well as new equiptment. When is something truly yours when you pay for it? Never now a days. Even the data that is collected by the machine should be yours because if you didn’t buy it and use, there would be no data to collect. Being held hastage in the middle of your feild by a tractor that won’t work and having to wait for a service tech to plug in a laptop which could take hours or even days when you have 3 hrs of work left to do and heavy rain is 4 hrs away doesen’t sit well with me. You own the tractor PERIOD!! You own the data PERIOD!! Do with it what you will and repair it how you can afford to!!

    Well stated, Tobacco Mike, and I couldn’t agree more, but I fear that this “relaxation” by Deere is temporary, and this is far from over. I also fear that this hasn’t scared any manufacturers and that more – not less – VMs will be limiting owner access to maintenance and repair (and data) in future. From what I’ve seen, they couldn’t care less when the rain is coming…

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