In the 21st century, only corporations get to own property and we're their tenants

In the wake of John Deere's claims that the software in its engines means that its farm equipment is "licensed," not "sold," I talked to the Globe and Mail about what digital locks mean for the idea of property in the 21st century.


Laws like Canada’s Bill C-11 and the U.S. DMCA say that if a manufacturer uses computer code to control what you do with the things you buy, you can’t overrule them. These laws say that it’s a crime to remove DRM even if what you’re doing is otherwise allowed. So, it’s a lock on something that belongs to you, that even for legitimate reasons you can’t remove.

As the John Deere petition to the U.S. Copyright Office made clear: The presence of a digital lock in a manufactured good means that you don’t own it and can’t decide how to best use it.

In this world, “property” becomes the exclusive purview of manufacturers. You don’t get to own your computerized devices: You are only and forevermore a tenant of them, and the manufacturers are the landlords and they get to decide how you use the goods they deign to allow you to pay for.

It used to be that if you bought something and figured out how to get extra value out of it – using an old blender to mix paint; fixing your own car; or ripping your CDs and loading the music in an MP3 player instead of buying it again – that extra value was yours to keep.

In the world of C-11 and the DMCA, all that value is retained by the manufacturer. So automotive companies can put software locks on the engine computer, then insist that the mechanics they license source all their parts from the manufacturer at full retail, meaning that you can’t choose a mechanic who’ll use cheaper third-party spares.

If your dishwasher can detect and reject “unauthorized” dishes in it, it can refuse to run its load. It’s the inkjet printer model, metastasized into the Internet of Things where everything we own – cars, houses, hearing aids, phones – is just a computer with a fancy case.

Do you ever really own a computerized device? [Shane Dingman/The Globe and Mail]

(Image: Deere Wrench, John Lloyd, CC-BY; Another JD, JD Hancock, CC-BY)