Right to repair advocates exist in every industry from tech to tractors with one common goal — widespread consumer access to critical repair information and tools.
However, it’s not as simple as handing over the reins and the rights when intellectual property and physical property rights clash. During a seminar by the National Agricultural Law Center, director of Penn State’s Center for Agricultural and Shale Law, Ross Pifer discussed the basics of right to repair for agriculture. “Right to Repair is fundamentally a property rights issue,” Pifer said. “How are we going to view the rights of a farmer — who owns a piece of equipment and purchased that piece of equipment — and how are we going to view the rights of the manufacturer or technology developer?”
A Bundle of Basic Rights
Property rights, especially pertaining to high value and high tech farm implements, are much more difficult to untangle than they might seem. Technology owners, manufacturers, farmers and bankers all can claim a slice of the proverbial pie.
“When you own property — whether that property is a parcel of real estate or whether it is personal property like tables and chairs — you have the right to use that property, the right to prevent someone else from using it, the right to sell it, the right to destroy it and so on,” Pifer said. “But, it’s also possible that you don’t have the same bundle of rights for one piece of property as you do for another piece of property.”
For older implements and machinery with purely mechanical parts, property rights are much easier to delegate. Equipment in these categories is often purchased outright and can be repaired with seemingly nothing more than ingenuity and bailing twine. But, when producers prepare to enter in to the technological age, both the machinery and the ownership become more complex.
“As technology that is contained within modern farm machinery develops, it creates a number of legal issues as well as practical problems,” Pifer said. “A farmer owns equipment, be it tractors or combines or other equipment the farmer owns that but because of the technology that has been imbedded into that,” Pifer said. “Often, there are intellectual property rights that are held by the manufacturer or the developer of that technology.”
Carmakers & Compromise
Automakers and tech companies have already been finding common ground in the issue of right to repair. For the auto industry, changes came early in the form of industry-consumer agreements and legislation.
“Right to repair in the auto industry goes back 20 years or more,” Pifer said. “In 2002, there was an agreement reached that provided a starting point for the developments that have taken place since that time.”
In 2013, the state of Massachusetts passed legislation to provide access to diagnostic and repair information for new motor vehicles starting in 2018.
For newer cars, this meant a means to access the onboard diagnostic and repair information systems. The change was welcomed by right to repair advocates but imposed standards higher than those agreed upon by automakers nationwide in 2002.
Legislation as a Last Resort
Farmer advocates of right to repair agree that of the three ways to implement industrywide change — industry standards, shareholder agreements and legislation — legislation should be the last resort. American Farm Bureau especially advocated finding compromise for right to repair issues prior to pursuing state or national legislation and many other farm advocates for right to repair agreed.
“The National Farmers Union, at their 2019 convention, expressed support for fair right to repair legislation,” Pifer said. “They wanted farmers as well as independent mechanics that serve farmers to have access to information that’s necessary in order to repair equipment.”
In the Massachusetts carmaker case, automakers throughout the country agreed to follow the first legislation instead of having 50 different standards, essentially making the state laws a national guideline for right to repair.
Authorized Dealers vs. Owners
One of the key changes proponents of right to repair want addressed in existing legislation pertains to the difference between authorized dealers and owners or independent mechanics.
“I highlight the language ‘through authorized dealers’ because that’s a sticking point among some who would like an explicit statement that end users be provided repair information,” Pifer said.
Clarifiers addressing receiving information direct from dealers or prohibiting select changes to machinery are key to look out for in future right to repair legislation targeting farm equipment.
While right to repair is relatively new to farm policy, understanding the motive behind the movement and the legal implications of legislation versus shareholder agreements can make adoption move more smoothly through the agriculture industry.
“Right to repair is trying limit or remove any restrictions imposed upon the farmer to repair or maintain an item,” Pifer said. “So, removing any legal or practical limitations on the farmer’s ability to repair or maintain.”