A class action lawsuit filed in Chicago has accused John Deere of running an illegal repair monopoly. The lawsuit alleged that John Deere has used software locks and restricted access to repair documentation and tools, making it very difficult for farmers to fix their own agricultural equipment, a problem that Motherboard has documented for years and that lawmakers, the FTC, and even the Biden administration have acknowledged.
“Farmers have traditionally had the ability to repair and maintain their own tractors as needed, or else have had the option to bring their tractors to an independent mechanic,” the lawsuit said. “However, in newer generations of its agricultural equipment, Deere has deliberately monopolized the market for repair and maintenance services of its agricultural equipment with Engine Control Units (ECUs) by making crucial software and repair tools inaccessible to farmers and independent repair shops.”
The lawsuit claims John Deere is violating antitrust rules and also alleges that Deere is illegally “tying” farmers to Deere-authorized service centers through arbitrary means.
John Deere has increasingly moved toward implementing software locks tied to repair parts that make it difficult for farmers and independent mechanics to fix tractors without specialized software or access from John Deere. It has also lobbied heavily against proposed legislation that would prevent some of the arbitrary locks Deere and other companies put on their devices. In recent decades, the tractor maker has added software suites to its tractors and other farm equipment that provide helpful services, but also give the company a measure of control over how the farmer uses the machine. If a farmer wanted to fix their own John Deere tractor, they often had to hack it to circumvent the company’s software locks.
The situation is so bad that it’s created a boom in the secondary market. Used tractors are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in part, because they’re easier to repair than modern machines.
Forest River Farms, a farming corporation in North Dakota, filed the recent antitrust lawsuit against John Deere, alleging that “Deere’s network of highly-consolidated independent dealerships is not permitted through their agreements with Deere to provide farmers or repair shops with access to the same software and repair tools the Dealerships have.”
“As a result of shutting out farmers and independent repair shops from accessing the necessary resources for repairs, Deere and the Dealerships have cornered the Deere Repair Services Market in the United States for Deere-branded agricultural equipment controlled by ECUs and have derived supracompetitive profits from the sale of repair and maintenance services,” the lawsuit, which repeatedly cites some of Motherboard’s reporting on the issue, continues.
Deere did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard and has not yet responded to the lawsuit, according to the court case’s docket report.
The lawsuit is another blow against companies like Apple and John Deere that want to make it hard for people to fix the stuff they’ve bought. John Deere uses software to lock farmers out from making repairs because it makes a tidy profit from forcing them into dealerships it controls. It’s a practice that’s gained a lot of legislative and activist attention recently.
The lawsuit alleges that, though Deere has made some types of software and repair parts available to the public, they are “insufficient to restore competition to the Deere repair services market,” and notes that “there are no legitimate reasons to restrict access to necessary repair tools.”
Last year, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at making it easier for everyone to fix their own stuff. He also directed the FTC to formally adopt a pro right-to-repair platform. Legislation has been introduced in congress that would enshrine the right-to-repair and similar laws are working their way through various statehouses across the country. Microsoft's shareholders have pressed the company to do more for repair and even Apple is backing away from its monopolistic repair practices.
“If John Deere continues to lock farmers out of repair, the company may reap what it sows,” Kevin O’Reilly, PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign director, said in a statement. “Deere’s best bet is to embrace Right to Repair wholeheartedly and give farmers everything they need to fix their tractors. Deere’s restrictions violate basic ownership rights, do wrong by farmers and expose the company to legal ramifications. Hopefully this lawsuit—together with state action, pressure from the Biden administration and the FTC's decision to enforce repair restrictions—gets the message across: It’s time to let farmers fix their stuff."