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John Deere tractor owners allegedly use hacked Ukrainian firmware for repairs

Why it matters to you

If you like to make your own vehicle repairs, be sure the software license gives you the right to do so.

An unexpected market for hacked software appears to be thriving. American farmers who own John Deere tractors are getting around what they view as an overly restrictive software licensing agreement they were required sign in October, according to Motherboard.

Rather than rely on and wait for authorized company representatives to make expensive farm calls, some tractor owners resort to calling local “technicians” who allegedly use hacked firmware they bought from Ukrainian sources to make the repairs.

We’ve written about the issue of vehicle software ownership before. Like John Deere, General Motors and other automakers also claim they own the software and owners cannot sell it or alter it in any manner.

For farmers in Nebraska, however, the issues with the mandatory John Deere license are time and money. The crops can’t wait.

“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,” Nebraska hog farmer Danny Kluthe testified to the state legislature. “Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix].”

Kevin Kenney, another Nebraska farmer told Motherboard, “If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it. You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic — he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”

“What you’ve got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market,” Kenney continued.

Both Kenney and Kluthe are advocating right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska. The law would invalidate the John Deere software agreement. John Deere is a strong opponent of the proposed Nebraska legislation and similar bills being considered in seven other states.

When Motherboard asked John Deere about the Ukrainian firmware hacks, which are sold via online forums, the company replied that there was no problem.

“When a customer buys John Deere equipment, he or she owns the equipment,” the company said. “As the owner, he or she has the ability to maintain and repair the equipment. The customer also has the ability through operator and service manuals and other resources to enable operational, maintenance, service and diagnostics activities to repair and maintain equipment.

“Software modifications increase the risk that equipment will not function as designed,” the company continued. “As a result, allowing unqualified individuals to modify equipment software can endanger machine performance, in addition to Deere customers, dealers and others, resulting in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety/environmental regulations.”

According to Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, a Nebraska trade organization in favor of the right-to-repair legislation, however, “Some of our members have repeatedly attempted to buy the diagnostics that are referenced [from John Deere] and been rebuffed.”