In the modern, digital economy, there are a whole lot of things you buy but still technically don’t own. Nearly all entertainment, for example: digital books, video games, music, and so on. Other software, too. But as basically everything continues to become some kind of computer in a specialized body, plenty of other goods are starting to be subject to licensing, copyright law, and non-ownership problems, too. Like tractors.
Famous farming machinery company John Deere is making the case that you don’t own your vehicles, Wired reports this week. In filings with the copyright office (PDF), the maker of the ubiquitous green and yellow tractor argues that because your tractor has a chip and some code in it, you don’t actually own it. You’ve just got an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”
We’ve been through this song and dance before — really, we’re still going through it right now — with specifically high-tech items. You might own the plastic, glass, and aluminum casing of your iPad but everything that runs on it, every single line of code that makes it go, is just something you have paid for the right to access until someone else takes it away or changes it. That affects your ability to unlock your phone, resell your used tablet, or in fact act in any way like you actually own the thing you went and bought and paid for.
Software is more like an event than like a thing, in many ways: You pay for a ticket that gets you into the rock concert, and you get to watch and participate and enjoy it, but you don’t own the musician, the concert, or any recordings made of it. You paid for the time-limited experience of using it, basically.
So it goes with your digital book, or your video game, or that song or movie you downloaded. You’re paying for access to the experience, on the company’s terms. And with digital goods, culturally speaking, we’ve pretty much gotten used to that. They’re not tangible, and they’ve been subject to strict licensing for a long time. Overall we’ve more or less accepted that you can’t sell a used Steam game or Kindle book or iTunes song.
But we still have an expectation of ownership for physical, tangible goods. I can resell this paperback, or this CD, or this DVD, or this car. We still have a (rapidly fading) second-hand market for disc-based video games. There’s an expectation that an actual object I can hold in my hands or park in my driveway is mine to do with as I please after I’ve legally paid for it with my money.
Except, well, maybe you can’t.
Copyright law controls basically everything, thanks to the pervasiveness of software. Everything has a chip and some code telling it how to act, from your coffeemaker to your TV to your car. And as John Deere so unsubtly points out, for farmers, that includes tractors and other farm equipment.
Lest you think it’s just the agriculturally-employed who need to worry, it’s not. GM is right there with John Deere explaining to the Copyright Office that drivers might own the frames and windows and trunks of their cars, but that because everything under the hood and in the dash is driven by a computer chip, General Motors retains a claim on every car they sell. If you decide to go get some aftermarket mods done on your Chevy, you might be a software pirate.
Congress has gotten involved with the YODA proposal (yes, really) to protect the consumer’s right to resell goods they own even if they have software in them, but that seems unlikely even to limp through committee and even less likely ever to see the light of day as law.
The Copyright Office will be holding hearings on the matter in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. in May, and they are expected to issue a ruling in July saying just what you can and can’t do with the things you thought you paid for.