Countries around the world are considering the rights of consumers and farmers to repair everything from medical equipment to phones, but few legislative bills have made it into law, including in Canada.
In farm circles, “right to repair” refers to the ability to fix machinery hardware as well as software. The concept has been hotly debated in recent years, in Canada and the United States, and legislation granting farmers the privilege has been tabled in a variety of jurisdictions.
Why it matters: Tinkering with digital tools can bring unforeseen risks but farmers still need the ability to operate when issues arise. Right to repair legislation needs to balance both concerns.
The challenge lies in balancing an owner’s right to maintain vital and expensive farm equipment against manufacturers’ major investment in developing the increasingly complex digital machines.
At the federal level, Canadian Liberal MP Bryan May introduced a private member’s bill in February that would enshrine the right of Canadians to repair things they own. While the bill focuses on much more than farm equipment, notably smartphones and other smart devices, the impact may reach to the provincial level.
Regardless, some in the agriculture sector say the goal should be finding a balance between what equipment manufacturers and dealers need and what farmers require. Achieving that balance means that what once was a protest movement is now becoming a slow legislative slog.
Altering copyright law
May’s bill, which has received first reading in the House of Commons, seeks to amend Canada’s Copyright Act so individuals can fix their own electronic devices. This includes a variety of technologies, including cars and other vehicles, and has obvious implications for agriculture, says Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and zone 13 director for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).
If the bill passes, the provinces will have the choice of implementing further repair rights.
“If the federal bill does pass, it doesn’t mean the provinces will go nuts. It just means they can tailor things to their specific region if it fits,” says Currie, in reference to an earlier attempt by the Ontario legislature to enact a similar bill. That bill, posed in 2019 by Liberal MPP Michael Coteau, was defeated.
In the United States, many states have introduced and attempted to pass similar legislation, and as the New York Times reports, efforts to expand right-to-repair policies to some types of electronic devices have been perused by Congress. As of this writing, nothing has been passed into law.
According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, there are 33 right-to-repair bills in the legislative process in 21 states. Many of them target agriculture equipment but some are exclusive to medical equipment.
In Australia, the agriculture sector is awaiting results of a major inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into farm equipment and the right to repair.
Origins of the movement
The right-to-repair movement got rolling after equipment manufacturers including John Deere announced that producers did not have the jurisdiction to service their machines.
Don McCabe is a Lambton County grain producer, past OFA president and current chair of Biological Carbon Canada, an organization pushing for the monetization of environmental credits for farmers. He says farm and equipment dealer representatives have engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue on the ability to fix hardware and software, plus the right to re-program.
“There’s been dialogue to ensure everyone doesn’t get conspiratorial,” says McCabe. “The reality is the dealer is just a conduit. It’s the original manufacturer you want to have the conversation with.”
The nuances of exactly what individuals have the right to repair lies at the core of the controversy. Farmers will not be stopped from making mechanical repairs, says McCabe, but it’s a different story when it comes to sensors.
Making changes at a digital level could have unintended consequences, from transmissions broken because they were pushed past a regulated point, to wider safety issues. Those sentiments are shared by dealers themselves.
There are also wider considerations when it comes to precision agriculture and the information or policies generated from accrued data. Messing with the system can lower data accuracy, which could affect payment for environmental services.
“It’s not just right to repair. It’s about quality of performance,” says McCabe.
“That’s the reality of messing with these chips. Any company can tell you what to do, but the reality is, it’s going to be on top of you if something goes wrong.”
Striking a balance
Currie agrees that some protection is needed to maintain the integrity and safety of equipment. As digital tools are incorporated more intensely, trained technicians will be required to manage precisely engineered machines.
Every farmer knows it is fundamentally important to continue operations, especially during peak times in the crop year. Being unable to trouble-shoot digital tools or other parts of a tractor without voiding the warranty, for example, is a problem, and one that Currie experienced when his planter broke down last year.
“I called the dealer and figured it out via Bluetooth. It worked because the technician was in the shop that day. I just happened to have the phone out there with me … I probably would have done some investigating on my own if that wasn’t the case,” he says.
Currie adds it’s important to remember dealers don’t often have their own team of technicians. If farmers or repair people not affiliated with a specific brand are unable to remedy problems, and the certified technician is busy elsewhere, the impact of down periods can quickly compound.
All factors considered, striking a balance with practical in-field needs is critical.
“Will we get to the point where we can’t change our oil in our own machines? When does it get to the point where all we do is sit in the seat, turn it on, and drive forward? Even going in to shut things off so we can do things manually, we just want to make sure we have the ability to do that,” Currie says.
“It’s the old ‘we got to make hay when the sun shines’ thing. It’s not to say we’re all IT specialists, but the more we use this stuff, the more we can do the basics. To do that I think is very important for the farm community.”