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We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Idea of Ownership (wired.com)
578 points by klunger on Apr 21, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 394 comments



Richard Stallman spent the last 30 years telling us this would happen.

As soon as books become computer files, you don't buy them anymore, you lease usage rights.

As soon as tractors contain computer code, you don't own them anymore, you are granted a license to use them.

When will it stop? More and more everyday objects are incorporating software and firmware in many different forms.

I remember reading Stallman's short story "The Right to Read" in the 1990s. I found it alarmist and completely unrealistic. I read it today and am forced to recognize that Stallman was exactly right.


The real problem here isnt that we're leasing things (we have leases for cars, houses, and many other physical goods). The problem is that the manufacturers mix leasing and owning. I.e. you own the device, but lease the software. I think that everyone would be radically happier if you either leased everything or owned everything. This is partly because when we buy something at a store, we expect to own it, not own part of it and lease the rest. This leads to the price of the object being higher than what you would actually pay if you were going to only lease it. In a world where nobody owns tractors and just leases them, we would still be fine because nobody would pay full price for a tractor every month, but rather only what would make sense economically.


I don't think it's that either. I think it's that laws exist to protect "intellectual property," which leads to a lot of bizarre consequences that don't occur with laws protecting traditional physical property. A lease on a physical good like a car is not particularly strange. It's just a contract that allows the lessee to use a scarce physical item that belongs to the lessor under certain terms.

If we had that kind of lease on software, but without IP laws, there still wouldn't be any strange legal consequences. The lessee gets the software, and perhaps the terms say that the lessee cannot copy or modify the software. The difference is that if the lessee does distribute a copy of the software, the lessor cannot go after third parties who download those copies, because they haven't signed any sort of lease or contract. The lessor can go after the lessee, of course, but that's it.

This latter description shouldn't be described as an "attack on ownership" any more than renting a car from the airport is an attack on ownership. The real attack on ownership is the existence of IP laws. You own your hard drive, but only until the hard drive happens to arrange some bits in a particular order.


> If we had that kind of lease on software, but without IP laws, there still wouldn't be any strange legal consequences. The lessee gets the software, and perhaps the terms say that the lessee cannot copy or modify the software. The difference is that if the lessee does distribute a copy of the software, the lessor cannot go after third parties who download those copies, because they haven't signed any sort of lease or contract. The lessor can go after the lessee, of course, but that's it.

The difficulty I see with the current and future legal landscape is that there's no clear distinction between right-to-modify and right-to-distribute.

It might be argued that this has been a willful conflation by IP owners in an attempt to best sell their agenda. (Right-to-modify-something-owned being substantially more in line with pre-digital norms)

My understanding was that the point of the DCMA's reasonable clauses was to clarify that yes, if you own something, you also own the right to modify it. Including the right to circumvent any artificial technical limits placed on your ability to modify. The tension has always been that modifiable devices can also strip technical protections from IP to enable distribution.

To me, I can't see how we end up with any alternative to the following two options (which I think the Stallman-position cardboard cutout would argue as well):

[World A] Users do not have a right to distribute IP. To ensure this, IP encrypted. Breaking IP encryption is illegal. To ensure breaking IP encryption is also impossible, modifying at least some portion of software/firmware/hardware in consumer devices is also illegal. To ensure modification is also impossible, technical measures are employed (aka "Nightmare TPM").

[World B] The legality of distributing IP is irrelevant. The legality of breaking IP encryption is irrelevant. Breaking IP encryption is feasible, because modifying the software/firmware/hardware of consumer devices is feasible.

The road to cyberpunk ethos was always that [World A] would be enacted legally (because money), while [World B] would be de facto reality (because consumers get creeped out by TPM and there are more hardware companies interested in selling units than vertically integrated IP stakeholders^).

^Bonus points for those who remember when Apple was the former rather than the latter


> The difficulty I see with the current and future legal landscape is that there's no clear distinction between right-to-modify and right-to-distribute.

In the context of entering a contract, I don't see either as "rights." If you sign a contract saying that you will pay a certain amount to use a tractor without modifying its internals or distributing copies of its source code, I am fine with a legal system enforcing that contract.


You're fine with the legal system enforcing the contract? Or the legal and technical systems enforcing the contract?

If it's only legal, I'd argue that's a slippery slope towards a legal system of convenience and loss of absolute respect for the rule of law. In other words "Yes, this action is illegal, but everyone does it anyway by necessity."

If it's both, then the technical methods for doing so become frightening pretty fast.


> Or the legal and technical systems enforcing the contract?

Both.

> If it's only legal, I'd argue that's a slippery slope towards a legal system of convenience and loss of absolute respect for the rule of law.

Well, as you might have guessed by my references to contract law, I'm not a huge fan of statutory law. "Rule of law" is only good if the laws are good.

> In other words "Yes, this action is illegal, but everyone does it anyway by necessity."

If people want to modify their products, then that should be a competitive advantage for firms that offer products with terms allowing modification.

> If it's both, then the technical methods for doing so become frightening pretty fast.

Why?


>> If it's only legal, I'd argue that's a slippery slope towards a legal system of convenience and loss of absolute respect for the rule of law.

> Well, as you might have guessed by my references to contract law, I'm not a huge fan of statutory law. "Rule of law" is only good if the laws are good.

> If people want to modify their products, then that should be a competitive advantage for firms that offer products with terms allowing modification.

> Why? [do the technical methods for preventing modification become frightening]

I'm getting the sense that we have fundamentally different opinions of the way the way the market works. In my view, it's entirely reasonable that the following chain of events unfolds:

a) Company A builds product that prevents users from making modifications (legally and technically)

b) The product captures a substantial market share (variety of means: maybe exclusive content, advertising, etc.)

c) Because the product prevents users from making modifications, it can extract higher profit-per-user than competitors (by taking advantage of revenue streams unavailable to sellers of a more open product)

d) Those higher profits can then be leveraged into a more dominant market position (regulatory capture, buying budding competitors, etc.)

I have a feeling you would say "(b) would not happen because the market would correct in favor of consumers and away from Company A."

My opinion is the market only self-stabilizes within certain bounds: once things get too out of whack, there is no guaranteed correction.


The confusion goes further. When you "buy" a kindle book, are you buying it or leasing it? It's still restricted, you can only put it where amazon says you can put it, so in my view that's leasing. Yet the button on the site says "Buy", and there's no other component involved.

At the very least the labeling laws should require clearly distinguishing between purchase and lease. If there's a part of the product that you're only leasing and not buying, the whole thing must say "lease" or "rent". It would be funny to see amazon forced to relabel their site like that though...


It's rabbithole. Owning a VHS tape recorder forbids you to use Betamax. Even when things become a standard you're still under the ecosystem diktat. Unless someone broaden the GNU manifesto and distribution to the physical world, where you could share means to create factories to produce anything you need on your own (pushing the debate onto matter, land and energy).


I feel like the term "lease" isn't appropriate unless there is a viable way and underlying plan to eventually return it. When I lease I car, I have to return it. They don't sell me the car under the auspices of a lease, with no way to ever return it, and still restrict my rights on what I can do with it.


Given enough time, software eventually becomes unsupported, and then -- perhaps after more time, but perhaps not -- unusable. In effect, this is the return at the end of the auto lease. It's not a perfect analogy (really nothing ever is), but it's pretty good, especially I think for people not used to thinking about this issue with software and other digital goods.


You're describing the same thing as leasing a car. Eventually the car is out of warranty and then at some point wears out and becomes undriveable. People don't typically lease vehicles for the physical life of the hardware.


Some analogies are perfect, they are called isomorphisms, and, if found, are very powerful.


In a world where nobody owns tractors and just leases them...

Tractors manufactured in the 1960s are still in regular use today, to a far greater extent than e.g. automobiles of that era. Although there are regular improvements, the core task of pulling implements across a field has not changed, and the same giant piles of steel that function today should still function decades from now. The portion of tractor owners and users who would welcome the dystopia you envision is minuscule.


The question I have is what does ownership mean if the thing owned is useless without something that cannot be owned/must be leased and cannot be replaced?

Can you say that it's really owned if you can't separate the leased part and can't use the thing without the leased part?

I mean, sure, you're free to write any sort of contract you want, free market yadda yadda, but I think there's something meaningful in the point the article makes here...


Agreed — I thought about this carefully and I'd have no problem with a rental-type agreement for a car of a piece of machinery, as long as we all agree that it's a rental (and the pricing reflects it).

Tesla is another example of a company walking a thin line. I'd be OK with their software updates to the car, and I'd actually rather take this further: I am not into car repair and I just want to use the vehicle for transportation, so a rental/lease agreement is fine with me.

The same problem exists with many other devices that we seemingly "own". Phones are a good example: they are rapidly becoming computing devices that we "buy", but don't really own, as we can't use them without the software, which is "licensed". Again, not a huge problem for me in the case of a phone, but let's be clear that I don't really "own" much more than a decorated doorstop/brick. I really pay an upfront rental fee with the expectation of using the device for about 2-3 years.


Price is set by the market. The lease cost will match the purchase price today. It will all be the same for the consumer.


The mythical "free market" uninfringed upon by bad actors, and other fairy tales.


[citation needed]


Alarming is the proper way to describe it. I remember how I thought it would never happen that I would buy a book and have it deleted remotely from my device when it so pleased the bookstore. But it happened. Then I thought absurd how anyone could seriously believe that the NSA was massively spying on its citizens and performing surveillance "carpet bombing". But then lo, Snowden happened.

Time and time again it happened. And invariably, Stallman was right all along.


Stallman understands better than most the true nature of wealth and power. Concentrated wealth (in the hands of either individuals or corporations) becomes obsessed with maintaining the concentration of wealth. The most straight-forward way to do this is to never actually sell anything, but rather to collect rent on it. However, the right to collect rent is a legal right that must be enforced by the state (or by force of arms, otherwise).

Stallman's focus on copyright law and intellectual property law is focused on precisely the mechanism by which our society grants rent-collection privileges to concentrated wealth. His core principle is that we must proactively ensure that concentrated wealth is not permitted to collect rent on EVERYTHING in the world, or else we will all be made their serfs forever.


> Stallman's focus on copyright law and intellectual property law

Channeling Stallman here, there's no such thing as "intellectual property law". There are a bunch of laws that work in very different ways, evolved under different circumstances, and have different purposes. Copyrights are for ensuring authors retain economic and/or moral rights on their work, patents are so that inventors will disclose their inventions instead of keeping them as trade secrets, and trademarks are so that consumers don't get duped into buying the wrong product. There are other sets of laws that have other purposes and histories, such as regional designation or shipwright designs.

Lumping them all together as "intellectual property" promotes oversimplication and confusion.


Stallman himself is very well aware of this issue and has written about it: https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html


That's why he said "channeling Stallman"


He?


Sigh, I'm all for calling people "she" if they desire, but this feels like a pointless comment. Do you know that the person being referred to (user "jordigh") would prefer to be called something other than "he"? Do you know whether or not the person you're replying to has done the research on which word to use?

If you don't know, you're wasting our time with snarky but baseless "PC" attitude. At least put in a few more keystrokes to actually tell us what you'd like to happen here; if other people agree, maybe it will happen. If you do know something, then tell us what it is, don't expect mind-reading.

Apologies if I've misread your meaning. I expect one-word posts are especially susceptible to that...


As the person whose gender was in question, I appreciate the doubt. I don't think you had any reason to believe that I was male, and male should not be the default gender.


Your name is right in your profile, so pdx could have easily got your gender from it. Maybe pdx even opened your site, where you have a photo clearly showing your gender.

It's also possible that English is not pdx mother tongue, maybe pdx tongue is one of those where the male pronoun is used to refer to people when the sex is unknown. Also, while it's usage as this has been fading, "he" is defined as "Used to refer to a person or animal of unspecified sex" in many dictionaries, and someone could have been tough that in school (I have been).


> and male should not be the default gender

Jordi, you're being a dumbass dude. Jordi is usually a mans name. Of course I assume male. Take the stupid PC bullshit down, OK?

https://www.google.com/search?q=pictures+of+jordi&tbm=isch


Just got this email from Jordi.

    So, now that we're inulting each other and no longer civil, you're
    being a flaming asshole and the reason women don't want to be in tech.
    Fuck off and die.

    - Jordi G. H.
@Jordi, I think you need to re-read my response.

You WERE being a dumbass. You DO need to take the stupid PC bullshit down.

Neither of these statements is actually that insulting. I did not call you a dumbass, I said you were being a dumbass in this instance. I did not call you stupid. l told you to take the stupid PC bullshit down (which you do need to do).

Now, telling somebody to Fuck off and die, that is insulting. I think your latin temper is showing itself, my friend. It's abolutely not OK to tell me to fuck off and die. It doesn't reflect well on you, or your organization. You need to wind it down.


Actually, as another poster said, I saw your name and a few personal details in your profile and did enough research, including seeing a photo that is probably you, to be 95% sure you are male. I suppose it is extra-annoying because the person was wrong in this case, but I would still find that post lacking if you do prefer to be called "she."

I don't have a problem with your response in general, or ideas like "male should not be the default gender". I often try to avoid using gendered pronouns, for reasons like this. If the original person had said something like that, I probably wouldn't have replied. I do have a problem with someone casually questioning the use of a word, without demonstrating any consideration of whether it is actually correct, whether an effort was made to make sure it was correct, etc. For all we knew, the person who used "he" personally knows you, and mindfully chose to use a male pronoun. That uninformed, knee-jerk reply ("He?") is as useless and obnoxious as having a bot post "PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: REMEMBER THAT NOT ALL HACKERS ARE MALE. WE WELCOME WOMEN!" every time someone uses the word "he."

Really, to go full-on PC for the benefit of trans people, etc., I guess we can't use gendered pronouns even if we do know someone, unless we have been explicitly (and recently) told which pronoun they prefer.


The poster in question is male.


And arguing endlessly about the language to use when it's not germane to the discussion is an ages-old rhetorical technique to attempt to frame the debate. Stallman might love freedom, but I suspect he loves winning arguments by being "clever" even more.


Actually, Stallman here is pointing out that the term "intellectual property" is an example of this "age-old rhetorical technique". Ditto for calling piracy "theft". It is very important what language we use because it determines the thoughts and emotions we have.


I don't mind the discussion of language semantics. I used the blanket term "intellectual property law" as a short hand, because I didn't want to address the several different ideas and laws that it covers individually, due to time constraints basically.

However, its absolutely correct that it is really a crude blanket term that lacks precision and deals with several different things that are thematically linked, but quite separate in reality. its not bad for someone to expand on a point I've made with those additional details. it adds to the discussion, I think.


This is getting meta and no longer directly responsive to the article, which I don't wholly disagree with. A tractor and a book are different situations.

Books are hard to copy, while files are easy to copy. Writers have to get paid, and people are cheap and don't want to pay them... even while they will pay the same for a fancy cup of coffee. Hence a scramble for some way to set up a toll booth that is hard to circumvent... DRM, streaming, proprietary reading platforms like Kindle, etc.

Stallman is absolutely right and was a visionary for seeing this when he did, but he doesn't get the full breadth of the problem. In his world, the creators of things starve. People can't have freedom because they want "free," which means slavery for the producers of content. (Someone who works for nothing is the definition of a slave.) Stallman can ignore this side of the equation because he is a tenured academic. It doesn't matter to him that nobody pays for his work.

What we need is some kind of open digital rights tracking system that does not rely on hardware locks and that lets certain bits of information behave like physical objects with physical characteristics. It's a hard problem, but hard problems get solved. I used to think cryptocurrency was impractical in practice. Maybe something can be done with homomorphic encryption. Too bad nobody is working on this because everyone still thinks we can make everything "free" and (magic happens here) and the creators of things can somehow still eat.


Many people who try to make a living making music or writing are unable to do so, even if the music or the writing is pretty good, and that's due to obscurity, not piracy. Historically, even fewer people were able to.

Pages and even chapters of books have been copied by photocopiers (found in many libraries!) for decades. The only limit to the copying was how many quarters you had.

You need to give up the idea that people need to get paid for the stuff they get paid for today, that everyone who makes money doing something today, needs to make at least that much on the same thing in the future.

People will have to do whatever they can get paid for, which is the case for most people today anyway. Creators won't starve, they'll create less and have a real job.

You think the problem of "creators starving" is so bad it justifies anything and everything needed to prevent it. I don't.


"Create less and have a real job."

Wow.

I see lots of this kind of sentiment when I bring this up, but yours deserves credit for being exceptionally honest.


The world probably needs less content creation. We're long past the point where there are too many useful books to read in one lifetime. Even in narrow fields, we're producing comedy television, historical fiction novels, or cat pictures faster than one person could consume them all. You could spend a lifetime just researching what's worth consuming.

With this kind of overproduction, it's no surprise creators can't make money.


> The world probably needs less content creation.

It's funny how this was noticed by King Solomon, far before the age of print. "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." (Ecclesiastes 12:12b). Apparently information overload was a problem even back then.

Anyway, I agree that we have too much content, but not content in general. We have too much for-profit content. I can't back this up with numbers, but I'm willing to bet that the majority of content creation is just an indirect form of advertising.

Take news sites. Why all those articles are so crappy, full of mistakes, and often outright lies? Because news sites don't care about the truth; the content is just the way to make you see the ads.

Or take all those images people repost on social media. I have a close friend working as a "content marketer", so I get to see first-hand how those images are made. There are people whose job is literally to create dozens of such pictures every week and post them on the pages they manage. The pages themselves are only tangentially related to what is advertised.

The whole scheme works like this: imagine you want to advertise a fitness club you own. So you create a bunch of Facebook pages about dieting, general health and exercise, and you hire a bunch of people to make you an image or two for each page, every day, and to spread them around in a way that links back to said pages. The images are usually pretty useless; the content doesn't matter as long as people share and "like" it. The idea is that you will waste a little bit of lots of people's time hoping that a percent of a percent of those people will convert and pay enough to justify all that social media carpet-bombing.

Frankly, I find this scheme evil, but for some reason it is a respected occupation nowadays...

The problem we really need to solve is wasting other people's time to make money. Content overload will fix itself then.


Imagine a futuristic utopian human society. Are the people writing poetry, playing instruments and painting murals or are they assembling widgets in a factory?

Humans are really good at creating things, that's what I think we are here to do, not "work".


Most of the content nowadays is created as "work", usually for advertising. In the futuristic utopian society we would get rid of all that crap, and I'm willing to bet we could let people create however much they'd like and we still wouldn't have information overload problem. It's easier to manage your information diet when everyone around you stops trying to push their content into you.


> It's easier to manage your information diet when everyone around you stops trying to push their content into you.

quoted from emphasis. remove money from intellectual property and you remove some incentive, from both good actors and bad ones.


This is sort of an easy thing for djb to say, but the truth is that most people are not good at creating things. Most people are barely useful for "work". The average keeps getting higher, but half the population is still and will always be below-average.

Maybe in a future utopian society everyone is somehow above average, or there are radically fewer humans that just are really smart, but right now most of the people are not going to create top-tier "content". And there are enough people creating top-tier content, and enough top-tier content in the history of human art, that I don't need any more content. Who is going to pay them? Why should I? Why should the state? Why is this is a thing we should be buying? I can think of at least ten better uses for my money.


The average keeps getting higher and the top-tier improves because of non-incremental creative leaps, achieved by statistical outliers in the new-blood people who create "more content". Large sample sizes are needed to yield the good stuff.


But if you're truly a talented artist or musician, you can always make a living. It doesn't need to be easy and it doesn't need to be possible for everyone to "create content."


If good material can be discovered more efficiently, there will be more opportunities for recursive inspiration. In that case, there would be systemic benefit from ease of discovery, which may require making it easy to create content that guides discovery.


That is a ridiculous argument. The more content we produce, the more quality and diversity you can get in the corpus that you will read; the more choices that you can make. There might be infinite insight in the contemplation of cat pictures. :)

Or from another angle: why don't we destroy half of the content of the world? Surely we have enough with the remainings. If we were to find tomorrow another intelligent species, would you be interested in their culture? Or won't you have time to read it?


What you said is hypothetical, but the question we face today is "should we put limits on our ability to transmit and receive information in the name of incentivizing content creators to create when we already have many lifetimes worth of content?"

Right now there are limits on what we can communicate, limits placed in the name of "protecting content creators." These limits are a kluge. For example, what if I where to take a song, compress it a ton, then read out loud the base64 representation to a friend who is transcribing it.

Have I infringed the copyright of that song? Or was I simply describing it so precisely that I allowed my friend to reproduce it flawlessly? If I sing the lyrics to my friend and he learns that, are we breaking a law? And more importantly, should we be breaking the law when we do this?

Why can't we communicate whatever we want? Why haven't we accepted that the progress of technology will slowly make all things a matter of "communication"?

I think that part of the answer to that question is a deep anxiety over such a profound shift in the "business" of our society. It would mean much would have to change, and while I'd argue that change would be for the better, I understand that anxiety.


Yes, more content adds more value. But past a certain point of saturation, it no longer adds enough additional value to compensate its creators. My argument is that we are long past that point.

Which would be more valuable, doubling the world's content, or doubling the amount of time and money to spend on it?


You're solving the wrong problem here.

Let's say we cut "literary production" in half somehow. Is it better if everyone writes a little bit, or if we all pay someone who's really good at it to do it? I'd rather read a professional writer than my own ramblings, which means I'd rather a subset of good writers were able to earn a living off it.


> The more content we produce, the more quality and diversity you can get in the corpus that you will read; the more choices that you can make.

If so, then we should just spend all day reading /dev/urandom. Infinite content there.

> Or from another angle: why don't we destroy half of the content of the world? Surely we have enough with the remainings.

If we destroyed the half that is advertisement in disguise, the world would be much better off.

> If we were to find tomorrow another intelligent species, would you be interested in their culture? Or won't you have time to read it?

I would, but I'd happily limit my time spent on analyzing ways members of that culture abuse one another and look for something interesting to learn from them.


There are about seven billion people, and they all like different things. There's no overproduction.


Surely there is, unless you think that people like the "content" that is explicitly designed to abuse them and trick into buying things.


faster than one person could consume them all.

This seems a rather arbitrary performance ceiling to strive for.


The point I was trying to make is that production needs to match consumption. Which can be difficult to plan for digital goods.


I take issue with this "real job" thing.

A "real job" is something you do to get reliable income. More often than not, it implies working for someone else. "Real job" don't have to be interesting, fulfilling, or even productive. If yours is, great, but that is not their main function. Their main function is to get you to pay the bills.

Hence my issue with the qualifier: "real". "Real" implies something inherently good, or at least better than the alternative. It also implies the alternative isn't "real", meaning it has less or no value. Add enough confusion, and you get a moral imperative to work your ass off for a boss that doesn't care about you, instead of creating pieces of art.

This way of thinking would lead to a bleak world. We should say "real job" less often —if at all.


It is quite clearly a 'no true Scotsman'-type argument.


What "it" refers to? My comment? Arguments based on "real jobs"? Something else?


"Real jobs." If we can't value people who are chasing their dreams, then what is the point of working together as a society to accomplish things? If artists should be cogs in a machine somewhere, then what is the point that machine?

It's absurd to suggest that people should get 'real jobs.' Life is a real job, and we've all already got it.


Historically creators didn't starve either, they worked on patronage assignments to pay the bills, and did whatever for the love of art once that was taken care of. Michaelangelo hated painting, but was commissioned for the Sistine chapel, one of the world's greatest works of art, because he was hungry.


Of course they did or else they worked at something different so that they wouldn't starve. You just don't know their names.


I suppose we have fundamentally different utility functions. I think it is valuable to society to have a class of (relatively) well-off creators who do that as their full-time job. Some of these creators will even start off making mediocre works that don't contribute much, as they move from peripheral authentic participation towards the center (or drop out and get a "real job"). If you don't see that as a valuable terminal value, then we'll have to argue about that instead.


Is your utility function such that you believe these content creators ought to make good money regardless of whether there are people willing to pay for the content they create?


Answering for myself: No, they don't. But if I'm not willing to pay for it, I also have no right to consume it.


The obvious answer here that I'm shocked to not see, is basic income.

As automation and artificial intelligence become more prevalent, why would we use humans to fill 'real jobs'?


> they'll create less and have a real job

.. working for Google, Apple, Tivo, and every other company that bastardizes software into opaque services to extract profits via leasing.

I think imaginary property laws can't die a quick enough death. But I also sympathize with api's viewpoint about the inevitable effects on the economy and incentives for what gets created. You'd do well to internalize both ideas and see if you can't discover some synergy.


Or create more, or better quality...


> the creators of things starve

The creators of things can do whatever they want in Stallmans world. They just cannot use the state as a weapon against the sharing of information they created, or more appropriately, hold a state issued right to control. A tool to deny the propagation of knowledge in all its forms which destroys culture (how much media from the 20th century is lost forever again?) and cripples social progress.

Nothing about dissolving the false economy of existent information scarcity means anyone needs to stop producing it. Just because you cannot control everything about your information beyond simple goods exchange, that you cannot deny people access to it if someone else who has it wishes to provide it, and that you cannot stymie it for profit does not mean you still cannot create information as a profession, in all its forms. Most modern visual artists online today operate off a model without transfer based rent seeking (ie, commissioning, or for comic artists patreon or kickstarter models).


The creators of things can do whatever they want in Stallmans world.

That's not true at all. Stallman is against DRM in general, not state-backed DRM specifically.


I'm getting tired of explaining why this kind of reasoning is wrong. Specifically, your statement about how "In his world, the creators of things starve." No, for the thousandth time, it's not true at all.

There is nothing standing in the way of content creators selling GPL code, and even keeping it private until its been bought. Full stop. stop perpetuating this fallacious myth abouth FOSS, please.

That being said, the real issue still is about ownership. If I buy a block of wood, even if you already shaped it into your "art" i have every right to modify it as I see fit. Its a physical thing that I own. Now, I couldnt copy your work and sell it though.

In reality a tractor isnt that much different. Its a physical object, with software "which could be argued is also physical in the form of 1s and 0s", and if I buy it I have the right to modify it as I see fit. What if something goes wrong with the software and I want to fix it? Oh no, thats illegal?!

In reality this is about control of the user, and money, not about anything else. It reduces freedom and security and functionality in almost every way.

A good example of this is my bad purchase of a samsung smart tv. Even though I know its running linux and hence gplv2, samsung has made it almost impossible to root the device without bricking it. Why? because they want control over the user and lots of their money system is setup around that. Its not about protecting the user. Its not about warranty issues, because I would gladly click the "i accept that my device is no longer under warranty if I load debian on it instead of your crappy samsung os". Its about app store and ad money, and pitentially about surveillance.


> I'm getting tired of explaining why this kind of reasoning is wrong. Specifically, your statement about how "In his world, the creators of things starve." No, for the thousandth time, it's not true at all.

> There is nothing standing in the way of content creators selling GPL code, and even keeping it private until its been bought. Full stop.

You appear to be arguing that it is not expressly forbidden by the GPL, but this is not what api said. There is something standing in the way of content creators selling GPL code — practicality. When you can only sell one license to the software ever, it's really impractical to build a business around selling that software. In fact, I cannot think of any companies that create GPL-licensed software and actually make their money selling that GPL-licensed software.


"I cannot think of any companies that create GPL-licensed software and actually make their money selling that GPL-licensed software."

RedHat, Suse, I just got done telling you Samsung, Zentyal, just off the top of my head, tons more if you just did a quick search. Note that sometimes it's bundled with hardware, or it's the support that makes them *the most8 money, but quite often they still make money selling the software too, so lets put this myth about practicality to rest.


I think you know full well that those are not at all what I meant. You can say "they still make money selling the software too," but that's what they call damning with faint praise. I made some money selling my old car, but I don't say I have a car-selling business. Those are hardware companies and service companies, not companies that primarily sell software.

The simple fact is that selling free software has not been shown to be a viable business model. There are businesses that have shown the value of using free software, and businesses that have made good money supporting free software, but creating and selling free software just doesn't appear to be something you can look to for income. And that's what api was talking about when he said "In [Stallman's] world, the creators of things starve."


>In his world, the creators of things starve.

How so? The entirety of human history has shown us that we create no matter what. Art, music, tools, stories, technology, etc. Creators have been making (and eating) for eons, well before modern IP laws. Look at the patron model, or commission based production, used for centuries. Or look at creation during leisure time for leisure (and its close modern cousin, large portions of the App Store).

The absence of strong, modern IP laws has never meant (and never will) "creators of things starve". It may mean varying levels of overall creation, but it gets hard to quantify what that would mean, especially when many components of our current strong IP laws work against and damage creation of IP.

>Stallman can ignore this side of the equation because he is a tenured academic.

You kind of lost me with this attack on him. This is just a lazy cop-out that gets you out of considering the counterargument on its points and merits. You're not debating his argument, you're attacking his character. Incidentally though, he is getting paid, and he is using the ancient patron model which is entirely consistent with his views.


"Look at the patron model, or commission based production, used for centuries."

Here's a better idea: look at the actual work produced under this model. With a few notable exceptions, it's an endless parade of flattering portraits of rich people, glorified depictions the wars they won, politically slanted historic fictions used to justify their authority, and scenes from the religious stories they used to instill terror and obedience in the people they dominated ruthlessly.

In other words, if you actually understood what you were talking about, you'd know that art produced under the model you describe existed - above all - to project and protect the power of the people who paid for it. The beauty of the copyright systems is that it provided the first real break from a brutal and largely impoverished world in which a tiny handful of rich, powerful individuals (and the institutions they controlled) maintained exclusive control over what did and didn't get made.

Seriously, what else have you got? A compelling case for a return to the divine right of kings? Maybe you could defend the Church's Index of Banned Books while you're at it? Or remind us why burning witches was maybe a good thing after all?

Protip, dude: don't use history to support your arguments if you don't know the first thing about the history you're citing. The system defined by contemporary IP law is far from perfect, but the idea that it's worse that what it replaced is completely insane. Further progress means adapting IP law to the realities of the 21st Century, not saying "Screw it, let's just revert to what worked for the ruling class in 16th."


>Here's a better idea: look at the actual work produced under this model. With a few notable exceptions, it's an endless parade of flattering portraits of rich people, glorified depictions the wars they won, politically slanted historic fictions used to justify their authority, and scenes from the religious stories they used to instill terror and obedience in the people they dominated ruthlessly....

The historical art and creation of our race is so much more than that, and always has been. Come on. You know this. I'd wager that the vast majority of music, art, and technological process and creation for our species has not been for pay in service of the groups you described. To think that art has historically been created solely for the rich is rather absurd. It simply isn't true. From the first known cave paintings, to the blues, to free software, this has always happened and always will, regardless if the creator is getting paid by a customer (rich or poor), and organization, her community as a whole, or not paid at all.

>Seriously, what else have you got? A compelling case for a return to the divine right of kings? Maybe you could defend the Church's Index of Banned Books while you're at it? Or remind us why burning witches was maybe a good thing after all?

Woah. Ok, I'm out. I see what I'm dealing with now. Don't need a "protip" from this type of derailing commenter. Good day.


"I'd wager that the vast majority of music, art, and technological process and creation for our species has not been for pay in service of the groups you described."

You'd win, but not for the reasons you imagine. You'd win because the vast majority of everything created by humans has been produced in the last century - and most of that has happened in countries with relatively strong democratic governance.

"To think that art has historically been created solely for the rich is rather absurd. It simply isn't true."

You're asserting this without any evidence, and doing do in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

"From the first known cave paintings, to the blues, to free software..."

Whoa, hold up, there's a HUGE gap between your first and second examples, and specifically, a gap where the evidence you're unable to cite should be.

Given the millennia-spanning history of civilization, expression that is legally protected from government interference is a very recent development, and even now, it's not one that's enjoyed worldwide. From ancient Sumer forward, you'll find that pretty much everything of note was created and controlled by the elite. And if not directly controlled, then certainly permitted only with their approval. Between the guilds that dominated production and the religious authorities who sanctioned their output, the power of art has - until very recently - been kept on a very short leash.

To a degree, I see how this validates your point in that it speaks to a large (and largely suppressed) desire to produce work that goes beyond the range of official sanction. And that's true of both work that gets supported in return for toeing a party line, and of work that gets banned for crossing it. But the desire to produce work is not the same as producing actual work. More powerful forms of creativity that went beyond folk art (largely restricted to song and dance) require advanced study and formal training, which absolutely and invariably took place under the watchful eye of the ruling class. Near-exclusive reliance on patronage not only provided a means for rewarding the useful and the loyal, it also provided a reliable means for starving the disloyal and disruptive. And I wasn't being flip by associating patronage with systems like the index of banned books and the divine right of kings. You can dismiss the broader context in which patronage thrived if you like, but that's no way to gain a comprehensive and accurate view of the subject.

Again, IP laws have never been perfect. But to the extent that they encapsulate the promise and power of democracy, they are tremendously instrumental in the explosion of human creativity that democratically ruled societies have been responsible for. Sure, there's always been some level of creativity present in human societies. But not until creative expression gained a measure of legal and economic independence, and people gained a strong measure of control over their governments, did the creative potential of humanity really lift off.

While IP laws are far from the only factor in this explosion, they're within the set of indispensable conditions that made the explosion possible in the first place. In the absence of a social contract that guarantees the physical well-being of every individual, regardless of the work they do (or don't) perform, IP laws provide an essential protection for the vast stores of materials and labor that go into the production of the most compelling works of art. Absent this protection (and general social support) the ability to control and advance the arts returns to the elite and their dependents. Invariably, this concentration of cultural power gets used to undermine the democratic institutions that exist to limit the concentration of political power in the hands of an otherwise unaccountable elite.


I think you may be conflating creation with publishing/marketing. It's possible that many things have been created that do not appear in history books because they were not preserved or advertised by wealth. We live in a world now where self publishing/endorsement is extremely accessible so it's possible that many modern day creations might make their way to the future without explicit dependence on wealth. One thing is certain, our current state of affairs is radically unlike that of both the 16th and the 20th centuries. Solutions to these problems will likely be novel.


No, I am not "conflating creation with publishing/marketing." I am making the point that creating work of any consequence is a time and cash intensive prospect, and that absent the IP protections that gave artists access to financial support outside the patronage system, the elites of pretty much every civilization since ancient Sumer have used their economic power to sharply control who does and doesn't work, and what does and doesn't get produced.

The absence of work from the historical record cannot be explained solely by the dearth of preservation or advertisement on the part of elites. It's also a product of active suppression by the elites of anything that may challenge - or even lead to a challenge - of their power and authority.

The best way to ensure that stuff like this never saw the light of day was to take full control of the means of production. This meant limiting access to both the tools of production and the training needed to use them well.

As far as our recent liberation goes, IP laws that allow creatives to finance their own production are only part of the picture. Other important innovations include the concept of human rights, the idea that freedom of expression is one of them, and legal systems that respect and protect those who engage in free expression.

None of this suggests that the desire to create freely and independently isn't a deeply felt part of the human condition. The point I'm making is that, until very recently, most people suffered under overbearing systems of governance that went out of their way to ensure that this creative desire was carefully controlled in the few cases where it wasn't brutally suppressed.

Saying the patronage system "worked" is a bit like justifying slavery on the grounds that mansions in the Antebellum South were remarkably beautiful, or that imposing the miserable conditions endured by peasants in pre-Revolution France was "redeemed" by the glories of Versailles.

It's possible to appreciate the artistic genius in work commissioned by monsters. But it's foolish to think that the mere existence of these transcendent efforts means we needn't worry about the conditions that produced them, or those who would allow these conditions to return.


If you're maintaining that all creative works made between the stone age and the advent of blues were the sole result of nefarious intervention by the wealthy then I'm afraid I have to disagree. I don't entirely disagree with your other points but since you seem more interested in reasserting your original conjecture and I am responding via tiny touch keyboard, I don't think I'll delve into the nuances of your argument right now.


No, of course that's not what I'm saying, and I'm not sure why you'd think otherwise.

After all, the development of powerful and severely punitive systems of censorship is a fairly clear indication that not everything produced was done at the behest of elites. Nor is there any reason to think that these systems operated with perfect efficiency. Benedict Spinoza, for instance, used a false name to avoid the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. Nicholas Copernicus waited until he was on his death bed before risking the publication of his life's work. Michelangelo made surreptitious use of cadavers to sharpen his anatomical skills. So yes, deeply influential work did happen on occasion, in spite of efforts to suppress it. But these instances remained the exception, not the rule. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the mere existence of finished creative work testified to its passage through elaborate systems of review and control, and its successful receipt of official sanction.

Given the considerable power over people's minds that art has always carried, the ubiquity of these systems shouldn't be surprising - especially when you remember that from the time sharply stratified societies first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia until the emergence of pluralistic forms of government in and around the 18th century, absolutist autocracies defined virtually all governing systems. Those that didn't seize control of cultural production not only lost the benefit of its power, they ran the risk of having that power used against them.

Even in cases where producers managed to secure a measure of independence (e.g. Kabuki theater under the Tokugawa Shogunate), much of their creativity focused on the evasion of the controls that remained in place. In this regard, the censorious influence of the ruling class remained profoundly influential, even if their rules were acknowledged mainly in the breach, or in obedience that was flamboyantly limited to the letter of the law, and not its spirit.

The development that changed all this was the emergence of pluralistic government, which was characterized by competing groups that each recognized their own inability to dominate government well enough to realize that they were better off in working together to limit government power in general than they were in trying to secure it for themselves exclusively. Sharply curtailing the power of official censors proved to be among the most effective ways of promoting and preserving pluralism. In the wake of these policy developments, humanist strands of culture exploded in volume and popularity.

My point is all this is that anyone thinking that the current level of intellectual and creative freedom - or even anything approaching it remotely - is deeply uninformed about the realities of artistic and cultural work throughout the bulk of post-Neolithic history. Yes, the desire to do this work has always existed. But for the most part, the satisfaction of that desire has only been permitted in very narrow and tightly controlled circumstances, and almost invariably in ways that enhance the strength and stature of hereditary rulers. To the extent that history of art reads like the autobiography of power, the democratization of its creation doesn't appear until a very recent period.


Your post was rude, misrepresented GP's argument, and did not contradict any assertion made in GP's post.

GP correctly argued that artists have always created, whether or not they were granted rights under a system of copyright law. He did not focus on or advocate a return to the system of artist patronage from the 16th century.


It is absurd to compare university professorship - which revolves around concept of academic freedom and is backed up by the tenure system - with the arbitrary whims of patronage as it existed under, say, the Medici.

Indeed, the whole point of tenure is to create working conditions that avoid the exceedingly well-known problems endemic to the patronage system.


> Books are hard to copy

Err, no, it only takes half an hour at most and a Xerox machine. It's much cheaper than buying it too. We used to do it all the time when I was in college, which helped a lot given that sometimes we needed books that were out of print.

And btw, the best thing about a printed book is that it's forever yours and you can rent it, burn it or copy it with no technical restrictions ;-)

> Writers have to get paid, and people are cheap and don't want to pay them

Welcome to the world of capitalism; supply and demand is a bitch, isn't it?

My problem with such an argument is that it tries to take a moral stand, whereas there's no morality in it, because being paid for shit is not a fundamental right. Plus in a world in which copyright terms keep getting extended such that Disney will never lose their rights for Mickey Mouse, some people find it hard to give a shit about copyrights.

But the freaking elephant in the room is that DRM does not protect the interests of "creators" and it does not stop people from pirating content. DRM only achieves two things - (1) lock-in for the company owning the platform (e.g. Amazon) and (2) milking loyal customers.

As an example, I'm resetting my phone like once every two months or so and reinstalling everything ... the Kindle app is now telling me that my books were downloaded on too many devices and so I can't download them. I can't "unregister" devices either, because this is simply a software bug. I then searched those books on torrent sites, found them, downloaded them and I'll never buy books from Amazon again.


There is little wrong with DRM as a concept, "But" just because you call something DRM does not mean it should be able to do anything.

IMO, a DRM bill of rights needs to exist to qualify for government protection. Data needs to be transferable FOR FREE to a new user. You can't shut down your DRM servers without first removing the DRM. You can't remotely change anything on a user’s system. Source code must be freely available for security researchers. DRM can only protect information not the operation of a physical device.


That's a good idea, but I don't see it happening. Perverse incentives abound on every side. Everyone wants this tilted their way.

We had a very good system in the age of printed and recorded media. Not perfect, but good. We just have to figure out how to update it, or figure out a new one. Part of my point was that this hasn't happened yet, and I'm sad that few seem to be thinking about this from all sides snd really working on it.


> DRM can only protect information not the operation of a physical device.

So I think it would actually be reasonable for the DRM to protect a physical device; but the contract should be structured as such.

If I have title to my car and can dispose of it as I see fit; I shouldn't have to abide by DRM. If it is rented and doesn't actually belong to me, then I could see technological mechanisms such as limiting mileage or range as a valid way to enforce part of the contract.

What the line of appropriate vs. not appropriate is of course not necessarily black and white; but I do think John Deere is in the wrong here and the farmer is in the right.


In a hypothetical situation where DRM caused a car to shut down on the way to a hospital ‘slightly out of range’ that’s hard to justify. The other major issue is a 'hacker' being able to remotely shut down a fleet of rental cars is less than ideal. Just picture a corn harvest where no Tractor worked for 1 week.

However, I can see using something like DRM to protect information about how a rented device is operated or where it is being more reasonable. (You drove X miles, where speeding, did not change the oil on a leased car.)


There is little wrong with DRM except everything about DRM. None of the exceptions you've called for would even be an issue without DRM.


Stallman is not a tenured academic. He's the president of a non-profit (the FSF). He makes his living from people's voluntary donations and (I presume) speaking fees.


He does not get paid by the FSF, nor does he accept speaking fees (insofar as I am aware; I'm not sure if there are certain sponsors, but he insists that those be donated to the FSF, not himself); his time is donated. He received a MacArthur grant a while back, while he is able to live off of.


After a quick google, it seems he was granted $500,000 (paid over 5 years) in 1990. [1]

This seemed like quite a lot until I divided it by the 25 years he's been living on it. £20k/year doesn't actually strike me as that much.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacArthur_Fellows_Program


> £20k/year doesn't actually strike me as that much.

You should learn about investing.

If he invested the initial amount without spending it, a moderate dividend yield of 3% would make him $15000 a year. Add 25 years of dividend growth, and he is probably receiving $50000-$100000 today, or even more if he reinvseted some of the dividends.


He has received more and larger cash inflows than that.


Doesn't he have an office at MIT in the Gates building?

In any case, it doesn't impact what I said. His gig is nice if you can get it, but I don't think the FSF can afford to pay everyone who works on GNU code.


>(Someone who works for nothing is the definition of a slave.)

I could go and lick the grass on my porch. I won't get paid for that. No matter how much I would like it.

Many things are just not profitable.

Unless you find other models, like patronizing


>Unless you find other models, like patronizing

Patronizing like - https://www.patreon.com/ - or patronizing like, "offensively condescending" [1]. Based on context, I'm assuming the former, but patronizing is a auto-antonym, so it should be clarified [2].

[1] https://www.wordnik.com/words/patronizing

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto-antonym


Thank you, you're right, I was speaking of a patronage like in the case of https://www.patreon.com


"Patronage" might be a better word for that...


If an activity (particularly one like writing books) creates value for people and yet somehow people engaged in that activity can't get paid, that might deserve a closer look than "many things are just not profitable." Or a better comparison than to a hypothetical personally recreative activity like licking grass.


Yes, definitely it would need a closer look.

And makes you think if it would or should go the same way of other non profitable but socially valuable activities, by the hands of non profit foundations and/or government support.

And if that would be a better or worse model than the current one.


> In his world, the creators of things starve.

Why can't John Deere make money selling tractors? The company was founded in 1837. Hasn't running a business for 178 years demonstrated that it is possible to eat and produce? Or is your comment unrelated to the article?


It seems pretty clear to me from context that api was talking about Richard Stallman's views on copyright law, not John Deere's tractors.


The software in the farm equipment is useless without the farm equipment. Sure, the "file" may be easy to copy, but building the rest of the tractor to USE the file? Slightly more difficult. And, referring to the article, why would you use a tractor to copy music?

I do think that the cheapest way to get a tractor that would use the software would be to pay Deere for another tractor.


In the doom scenario you sketch nobody would produce creative content anymore, and what exactly would be the problem with that then? Apparently people don't think it's worth enough. This is how a free market works.

I also disagree with your statement that people only want creative content for free. I think Spotify and Netflix prove that people simply want the most convenient service, but old-fashioned companies keep making roadblocks that make legal content less convenient to use than pirated/illegal content.

> Stallman [...] is a tenured academic. It doesn't matter to him that nobody pays for his work.

The university does? I assume he can get fired if he doesn't do his job even if he has tenure.

> Someone who works for nothing is the definition of a slave.

I think a lot of volunteers, e.g. a large amount of programmers who contribute to open source projects, do not think of themselves as or could be qualified as slaves.


Regarding the cup of coffee, they've put DRM on that too: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/03/how-do-you-drm-a-...


We absolutely do not need a digital rights tracking system to turn bits into de facto physical objects. The point being, if we needed it, it would be invented and widely adopted. Practically no consumer wants that system, or anything remotely close to it.

There is no magic in making everything digital free - its just the way the universe works. Those things which can be trivially produced (digital copies) are tantamount to an infinite supply. In the case of limitless supply, prices will approach zero. Eventually the law will catch up with the rest of society.

Creatives will make money in other ways; there will always be writers, artists, poets, and hackers. People are compelled to create and share. They will not always be paid per unit of work after the fact.


Creators can't have it both ways. The info you sell has to be useful to the people buying it...or they won't buy it. Just because we now have a technically literate population doesn't mean that you can change the rules to make selling new shit still applicable.

Information is free if you sell it (in a book...in a prog...written on a stone tablet) you are letting others use it. Farmers are an easier target for them cause mostly they font own their land, or seed, now it would seem even their tractors. I think they have been hanging out too close to Monsanto and others whom make our litigious society possible while logically incongruent.

And if everyone is a creator then why how can everyone starve? It will only starve the ones who create poorly.


In the existing world, creators starve all the time--consider the concept of the "starving artist".

There is this meme that somehow not having copyright immediately implies no possible monetization strategy, and it needs to die.


There are other monetization strategies. A popular one is to offer something for free and then use it to conduct mass surveillance and sell your customers to advertisers and governments.


Or the Patreon model, where people can be patrons of an artist whose work they appreciate!


Patreon is tantamount to panhandling. It's not much of a business model.


You know, a lot of the best artists of the Renaissance did pretty well "panhandling".


When will it stop?

Once most of the population realises the situation we've gotten ourselves into, perhaps things might change for the better. However, it's looking more and more like we're increasingly willing to sacrifice individual ownership rights and freedom for convenience or other things like security...

The closest we've gotten to a sort of "copyright revolution" might've been in the last decade when file sharing grew explosively and many people started thinking about the issue, but then the efforts of governments and corporations seem to have effectively suppressed that by leading consumers into using more convenient but less free systems.


It's not only about tractors. Cars and other equipment are based more and more on computers too. I saw 60+ year old tractors and cars, all work fine.

For expensive physical products, I would rather choose one with a high quality and a long lifespan with no computer in it at all. There are only a few left like Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Land Rover Defender, Hummer H1, Jeep Wrangler, Caterham 7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercedes-Benz_G-Class , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Rover_Defender , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummer_H1 , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep_Wrangler , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caterham_7 .

Watching the Top Gear Specials where they drive with old cars through foreign countries on crappy roads - I always think about how would a modern car survive that - it wouldn't. For example the Porsche 924 (1980s) was cars with a lots of computer chips, it was completely dead (the dashboard lighted like a Christmas tree, the windscreen wipers was the only thing working) after a few days driving through Africa.

Richard Stallman was right. The GNU (L)GPL 2+ is a very good choice for open source projects - at least for bigger (for smaller BSD/MIT is good too).


> As soon as books become computer files...When will it stop?

IANAL, but legally, this has nothing to do with software. You can force buyers to agree to a license agreement to legally read your book. The right to first sale applies to copyright and trademark - it does not allow you to ignore license agreements. Obviously it's easier to enforce on software because you can execute DRM code on a device.

Blaming this on software or computers misses the underlying mechanism and focuses on the wrong thing. It is, and always has been, an issue of what we allow and don't allow in our legal system.

It will stop when people want it to stop.


What happens when we have computers implanted in our brains? Do I no longer own my brain?


"Metabolic control. Enhanced sensory perception. Improved reflexes and muscle capacity. Vastly increased data processing speed and capacity.

All improvements thanks to our cyber-brains and cyborg bodies. So what if we can't live without high-level maintenance? We have nothing to complain about. It doesn't mean we've sold our souls to Section 9.

We do have the right to resign if we choose. Provided we give the government back our cyborg shells and the memories they hold. "

- Ghost In The Shell (1995) Script


Such a great movie.


Shirow's vision of a post-digital society is extremely forward looking for 1990. Many of the themes he was interested in 25 years ago are only starting to come into focus now, which is pretty legit for a pop scifi author.


I cannot think of an anime film particularly that is as prescient as Ghost in the Shell.

For my money, the best non Miyazaki piece of art the genre ever produced.



What happened to australopithicus? You'll be free to starve with a meat-based brain as everyone with implants outcompetes you at everything if you'd prefer.


I think the brain reading writing argument is a really good example that should be used in discussion of this topic more often and more in depth. It shows even a layman how this issues can have a real ompact.



Yeah, I remember back before ebooks, we could all just Xerox the books we owned, bind them together, and sell or give away the copies to anyone we wanted to, and they could do the same. It was a lot more work than just copying a file, but everyone was perfectly fine with people doing it.

Oh wait a minute, that's not at all what it was like. It's very easy to latch onto people like RMS who make everything seem so black and white, especially when they're older than you and can remember the "good old days" when everything was more civilized. These are all critical, important, vital issues that people should not let go of for one second and never stop thinking about. It's just unfortunate when people like RMS want to turn it into some grand good vs. evil narrative (frequently in which they see themselves in the hero/prophet role). It frames everyone with a differing or more nuanced opinion as someone who is not operating in good faith, which is just never good for anyone.

I don't think there's a person alive today who has all the answers about this stuff. There may not even be a correct or true or proper answer given the ways in which we've framed the debate, only a pseudoinverse solution that makes everyone the least unhappy on the whole. But we're long past letting any one person with their very, very, very specific ideology define that debate. I worry like hell about all this stuff, but the people going around saying "See?!? RMS was right!!!" might be counterproductive. It twists the debate back into "you're either with RMS or you're against him", and whatever his other good qualities may be, that's a tough pill to swallow for just about everyone. He approaches everything in the most fundamentalist way possible, which I've come to see as a sign of intellectual conceit rather than conviction.


people like RMS who make everything seem so black and white

aka: Ultimatist.

Just like the EFF, ACLU, NRA, NARAL, etc.

The job of the ultimatist is to expand the Overton Window, challenge assumptions, highlight hypocrisy, ask uncomfortable questions.

Agree or disagree, our public discourse would be less healthy without ultimatists like RMS.


I just realized that I'm basically saying that RMS himself does not function in good faith, and I think that's the root of my distrust of him. He's the kind of person who likes to assemble elaborate ideologies over time. He doesn't seem like the kind of person who is instinctively skeptical about his own perceptions. I really don't get the sense that he ever plays devil's advocate with himself or actively tries to come up with the best arguments against his own beliefs in order to strengthen them.

If he had ever written anything in which he talked about how his views have evolved or changed over the course of his life, that would be one thing. But I don't think he's changed his mind about anything over the past 30 years, outside of becoming even more fundamentalist. I don't trust people who never change their minds about anything, especially those who think changing their mind is a sign of weakness. If they are widely known for declaring those who disagree with them as being evil or otherwise morally and ethically questionable, I not only don't trust them but start to think of them as toxic distractions to the real debates that we all should be having.


RMS strikes me as the kind of guy who is constantly arguing against himself, and playing the devil's advocate. In many speeches[1], he is not just setting up strawmen to fight his position, but is actively adopting other mindsets he does not agree with in order to explain concepts to an audience.

But he's very good at stating his own (biased) opinion.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNBMdDaYhZA


To me, this is particularly concerning in the case where the physical equipment outlasts the software support cycle. We (society) haven't worried about this so much with computers because the $/compute-power has declined so precipitously over the years.

But it seems more important than ever that we have a way for individual users of software-controlled devices to move their "business logic" between standardized service vendors, whether that service is compute cycles in the cloud, or the physical work provided by a tractor.

Also, if the equipment is ultimately being rented, and the user owns the configuration, then the farmer could just rent another tractor (maybe from a competing tractor rental vendor), load his configuration on it, and keep the farm running.

Of course this is far from Stallman's vision of the everyman owning/modifying the code down to the bare metal, but it at least tries to shift the balance of control back toward the user.


I'm waiting for the first class action suit against said manufacturer for selling products which don't meet expected standards of fit for usage. It seems to me that locking up products in this way artificially limits their usage lifetime and fitness for use which seems to run afoul of an implied contract that they are selling a product. If that product cannot be used past X years, and the consumer is locked out of changing/adapting said product, they should be given a refund when it's no longer fit for use.


Thanks for doing my homework for me. do I need to pay you royalties if I use this argument in a class proceeding?


Some of us just don't buy DRM books and make copies for personal archival purposes.


> As soon as books become computer files, you don't buy them anymore, you lease usage rights... When will it stop?

I don't want it to stop - I think it's a good thing. By making a book impossible to pass from one person to another, the publisher is able to extract an income that is closer to the total benefit people derive from reading the book. In short: authors make more money. And so more books will be written, and readers will have a wider choice of better quality books.

And it's not just that digital books kill the secondary market for books - they also allow publishers to be highly discriminatory. If you are a woman in your 20s you pay full price for the new Taylor Swift biography, but a man in his 50s is offered a generous discount. For the latest Glenn Beck polemic the pricing structure is reversed.

So not only do publishers get a larger slice of the book-value pie, they are also able to grow the size of the pie. Magic!


publisher is able to extract an income that is closer to the total benefit people derive from reading the book. In short: authors make more money

These two statements are not logically connected. Price is controlled by supply and demand. If publishers are able to make more money from scarcity of books, it does not follow that authors are able to get more money unless there is also a scarcity of authors and a surplus of publishers.


It also assumes there's anything like a marketplace. Not, for example, one corporation pretty much owning the entire ebook market segment.


Yes, I agree that one company having a complete monopoly in the publishing business would be problematic. But in that case perhaps the better solution is to use existing regulatory powers to break it up (like AT&T was broken up) instead of restricting the types of licences it can offer.


Yes, price is controlled by supply and demand - and I'm describing an increase in demand. And just like any other competitive marketplace the price will rise when demand rises.

When Glenn Beck writes his next book he will shop it to the publisher who pays him the most money - competition between publishers means the amount he receives will be proportional to the revenue the publisher can generate.


Exactly correct. The thing is, I do like digital media but I am starting to prefer buying eBooks directly from publishers when they provide DRM free versions for Kindle, Apple, and PDF.

Every once in a while, I will gather the recent Kindle books I have purchased and attempt to convert them to PDF. This seems to work for most of them. IANAL, but my understanding is that if I have purchased a Kindle book then I can legally back it up as a PDF. Similarly, sometimes when I purchase a movie on DVD, I sometimes like a ripped copy on my laptop, especially for Qi Gong and Yoga lessons.


Unfortunately, many people, including me, are called alarmist; until what they say or a variation thereof comes to fruition. And then its just too late. As you imply, a damning precedent has already been set that you do not own books and we have even already seen examples of those books simply being erased form people's libraries. But in this new world, where the sheer confusion about what digital anything is, evil forces are taking any and all advantages from that confusion to undermine and usurp civil democracy and society.


The difference between a prophet and a fool is whether they are right.


An earlier article did a much better job layout why this is a huge problem for independent farmers:

"The family farmer who owns this tractor is a friend of mine. He just wanted a better way to fix a minor hydraulic sensor. Every time the sensor blew, the onboard computer would shut the tractor down. It takes a technician at least two days to order the part, get out to the farm, and swap out the sensor. So for two days, Dave’s tractor lies fallow. And so do his fields.

Dave asked me if there was some way to bypass a bum sensor while waiting for the repairman to show up. But fixing Dave’s sensor problem required fiddling around in the tractor’s highly proprietary computer system—the tractor’s engine control unit (tECU): the brains behind the agricultural beast."

Source: http://www.wired.com/2015/02/new-high-tech-farm-equipment-ni...

So basically, the concerns are very reasonable - operations cannot rely on systems that are put out of commission without a way to fix relatively minor issues on the spot.

While the system is trying to protect the farmer for liability purposes, if that farmer overrides the safe guard, liability shifts. The choice should be with the farmer and not John Deere lawyers.


Why doesn't the market handle this?

If John Deere is only willing to sell lifetime licenses to operate their vehicles, thus putting the farmer at risk in ways like you described, why do farmers still buy these "licenses"?

Naively, they must represent some advantage (despite their shortcomings), otherwise John Deere wouldn't be able to sell these things.


John Deere was the Apple of tractors, 20 years before Apple was Apple. It's killed off all the competition [1] for their tractors' ability to "just work" - even at a premium. Deere coupled high quality hardware with high quality service, whereas most other tractors tried to compete on cost by dropping one. Apple vs HP; Deere vs Case. It served them well in the long run, if made things dicy early on. There is no competition any more. And the development lead and capital required to compete with their machines, and their repair/distribution network is immense.

[1] http://www.tennesseetractor.com/assets/Uploads/jd-timeline.j...


Put slightly more technically: there are natural barriers of entry to the marketplace that make it tough for a disruptor to displace a incumbent monopolist (or in this case oligopolist... Deere basically splits the market with a few other competitors, all of whom collude on this issue).


Would this be considered cartel behavior?


If John Deere is the Apple of tractors, then Open Ecology is the Linux of tractors.

- http://www.ted.com/talks/marcin_jakubowski

- http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/LifeTrac


One hopes that if farmers really care about this, then JD's competition (http://seekingalpha.com/article/2523975-john-deere-versus-th...), will dive in and start providing an alternative, at a profit.

We'll see if farmers really care about this though, or whether it turns out to be something like "Replaceable Batteries" or "SD Flash slots" on smart phones.


John Deere is better than crappy old "American" brands like Case IH, but it is in the process of being disrupted from below by imports like Kubota. And from above by Cat. The picture might not be as rosy a decade from now.


It sort of is.

The Wired article mentions that some farmers are preferring to buy old tractors without the electronics. This demand increases the value for the used market and should depress the value of new tractors. There will likely be a growth in the business of maintaining old tractors and, potentially, enough public awareness of the benefits of tractors without electronics that another manufacturer can step in.

Or it might fizzle. Markets don't solve every problem, but they usually solve the problems people are willing to pay for.


Maybe tractor hacking will become a thing, too. I know lots of guys who circumvent the computers in their cars with pirated software, to make them racier. Might be a career in it for some of them.


I've recently become interested in this, since I bought a 2015 vehicle with a computer in the console. Do you have any advice/resources for a budding car hacker?


I don't have much personal experience other than watching my friends laptopping from underneath a car. www.dorikaze.com is a forum for drift racing that a lot of my friends frequent, and there's bound to be at least a couple knowledgeable people in there. Be warned though, there's a lot of grade-school antics, meming, and sexism, and the smart guys are used to curtly fending off stupid questions. So do a lot of reading before you start typing.


The best way to start is to not buy a vehicle with a hundred proprietary computers in it.


How do you search for and verify one of those vehicles without a computer?

Also, I haven't bought a new car in many years. Is there something like a EULA buried in the small print? And I don't imagine buyers on the secondary market sign anything. Or will it become illegal to sell used cars because the software license doesn't allow for transfer?


In the US? Possibly.

In the EU? Only if TTIP gets signed.


I'd search for forums for your make and model of car. Those are usually good starting places for getting information.


Recreational farmers probably do/will. However, its more problematic for farms functioning as a business.


As and aside, farmers aren't the only ones interested in old farm equipment. There's a vibrant community of collectors. Both communities tune and refurb the equipment to working order, tho' the collectors go further for appearance. So there are two groups vying for old equipment, driving prices even further.


Lock in and capital expense - the market is terrible at providing what is currently a financial service coupled with large equipment delivery. You need both halves - the sheet bending/engine manufacturing and the cash on offer to float the loan to the farmer.

There's a lot of strength to being incumbent in both of these areas.


Why can't a manufacturer partner up with a financial company to provide the bundle?


They can and do at the low end, but the upper end market is dominated by Deere and a few others in a way that is hard to understand.

The manufacturer has to have the deep pockets and stomach for a protracted battle - lots of folks "bleed green" and will only buy Deere. Deere is everywhere in the countryside - big marketing campaigns.

Deere and others also have large dealer networks. That is where the sales are made. Many of these dealers have been around for a really long time and have all of the customer access. You'd have to break into the network somehow.

You'd have to not only be able to make it, but have the cash on hand to sustain more than a few years of incredibly low sales and lack of distribution.


Also, don't forget that this is a relatively new development in situation. Historically, Deere has been a very reliable brand-name for farmers.

Long term, they may do significant damage, but it will take time to erode the built-up good will.


It seems there is more backstory here that is missing from the article. Maybe a better question is, why don't all the auto companies, which already cooperate and "collude" on a lot of things, have similar licenses? There are little niche markets for modifying the software in cars, they even make movies about it. If there is some sort of financial protection to the manufacturer, I'd think they'd do similar things for certain cars, perhaps the ones that don't have performance enthusiasts, like minivans or something. I can think of some very real reasons where a company like Ford or Toyota would like to make sure you only use "sanctioned parts" for repairs and DRM could help them to verify that other parts aren't usable; they don't seem to be doing that though.

I'm just guessing here, but I know Deere produces some fairly sophisticated software that takes over head photos of crops and they have various services that offer advice on how to best farm different parts of a farmer's land. Some of that software interacts with their farm equipment (like it can signal the onboard software to maybe work more slowly in particularly dense parts of a crop and stuff like that.) I could see them trying to somehow protect that software investment and treat it as a lock-in where the device owners may want to use that service with other brands of equipment or something. From what I gather, it's a non-trivial amount of software that they've built that has some significant value.


> Maybe a better question is, why don't all the auto companies, which already cooperate and "collude" on a lot of things, have similar licenses?

They do. The difference is that farmers are far more likely to attempt a fix on their machine than the average car user. Also, since farmers use their tractors more than the average user uses their car, a tractor is part of a system, while a car typically is the system. As such, there are a lot of parts to integrate with and as a result, more places where the system can break.


> Why doesn't the market handle this?

> If John Deere is only willing to sell lifetime licenses to operate their vehicles, thus putting the farmer at risk in ways like you described, why do farmers still buy these "licenses"?

Because John Deere has a monopoly.

> Naively, they must represent some advantage (despite their shortcomings), otherwise John Deere wouldn't be able to sell these things.

Yes, that is naive. If you look to capitalism to solve the problems of people at the bottom, you'll almost always be disappointed.


That still leaves all the people who currently own licenses to tractors instead of tractors with poor prospects. Suddenly they are forced with the decision of putting up with John Deere's BS or investing in a whole new tractor. And that is if this wonderful market solution were to spring up tomorrow.

That goes without saying that this issue is bigger than the tractor market. Car manufacturers are hopping on board and there are even fewer options for cars without protected computers in them. This issue is only getting more pressing as more daily objects become integrated with computer systems.


It most likely will, but it takes time. Product cycles for ag equipment are similar to the auto industry - new models every year, but major model overhauls every 4-5 years. That means it'll really take 10-15 years before the market really adapts to the demands of the customer. This technology is only a few years old.


Are there regulatory barriers for entering the market for producing farm tractors? That's the first question I would ask, if I were wondering why doesn't the market handle this.


The benefits are not relevant to small farmers, who do not have enough economic power to really matter.


The market handles this just fine, and shows us that in practice, this is not the problem armchair-lawyer nerds are making it out to be.

The whole OP is disingenuous - the issue is not who 'owns' the tractor. The issue is with the licence of the software that runs it. That doesn't change anything about the ownership of the tractor. Shoddy reporting, designed to appeal to the prejudices of their audience.


The entire point is that this dichotomy seriously blurs the lines of "ownership" in new and potentially harmful ways.


People have been doing this years with lawn mowers, both push and riding, for as long as I can remember. The complexity of work require to skirt the system increases but the reasons never really change.

If the system is so unreliable there are many other farm tractor manufacturers who can step in and likely are already exploiting the issues John Deere has.

If anything, perhaps lemon laws could be applied to farm machinery and written to be as X number of days across a calendar year. the nice thing about farming today is your likely to have online resources, places where word of this problem can travel fast enough to make a manufacture take notice


grew up urban, married a farmer... learned everything I know (not much) about fixing things with spit tape and wire from them.

what you say makes sense, but meanwhile Dave is still standing in his field with a useless machine and lots of work to do.


This is exactly the point. If your car is a lemon and always in the shop, at least it's trivial to get a rental, even if you're out of pocket the cash. Any number of car rental companies will drive a car out to your house or the shop where it is.

If your tractor is broken down and you need to bale that hay that's been drying in the fields today before the rain comes tomorrow and ruins it, you're screwed unless you can find a nearby farmer to help.


Hopefully the terms of your neighbor's tractor lease don't come with a geofence!


In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.

I don't have any sympathy for what John Deere is trying to to in using the DMCA to restrict how people repair their own tractors.

But the legal issues need to be better delineated than this article attempts to do.

1. John Deere does not "own" your tractor when you buy it from them and it is not asserting that it does. Software is automatically protected by copyright. It is a tangible form of expression of something that is creative and, the way copyright law works, a developer of software does not need to do anything except his normal work in order to gain copyright protection. You code it, you own it. That is the default. If you code it while being paid by someone else as his employee hired to invent, then that someone else owns it. Or if you code it as a work for hire paid by someone else, again, that someone else owns it. The situations vary. But, almost universally, for commercial, proprietary software, the customer almost never owns the software he uses when buying and operating a piece of hardware operated by that software. We all take this for granted when we buy a computer or mobile device. We own the hardware but not the software. We license the software and that is it. That license gives us a right to use the software for its intended purposes but it is almost invariably accompanied by terms that restrict us as consumers from reverse engineering the code or otherwise using the code for any purpose beyond the limited scope of what the license itself allows. For example, we cannot reverse engineer the software to attempt to create a competitive form of software product. People may have philosophical objections to this - usually falling under the "all information ought to be free" rubric - but, unless and until that philosophy prevails and works to change the law, that is by no means what the law is today. Today, when you have commercial software, you have copyright protection and hence a lack of ability to use or do anything else with that software without the permission of the copyright holder. And that means a license.

2. What John Deere is doing with its tractors is not claiming ownership of them once you buy them. Just as when you buy a Mac, Apple is telling you, you own the hardware and you have a license to use the software during the life of the product, so too John Deere is saying the same thing with its tractors. You own the tractor and you can do what you want with it until the product dies but, in once it dies, you have no further license to use the software on anything else besides that product. That is the legal effect of what a license does. There is nothing whatever controversial about this unless you have a philosophical resistance to the very idea of copyright (I realize many people do, of course). Under the law, however, John Deere is claiming nothing more here than what every computer manufacturer has claimed since the beginning of modern computing. To say, as this article does, that John Deere is claiming to own your tractor is wrong. Since the author is hardly ignorant of this, it seems the above statement is inserted for emotional effect and not as part of any reasoned argument.

3. All that said, copyright law is not absolute and never has been. When one gets a copyright, it is time-limited (or at least should be, notwithstanding the absurdly long extensions granted in recent years under the Bono Act, etc.). It also is not absolute even while the rights exist. The huge category limiting its effect is that of fair use. In some cases, public policy requires that certain uses of otherwise copyrighted materials be permitted regardless of what a copyright holder might claim. Classic cases include digital video recording, select permissible copying from books, etc. In the case of the John Deere software, and that of every other vehicle manufacturer that seeks to monopolize the market for repair of its vehicles through use of the DMCA's non-circumvention rules, the issue is not whether its software ought to be subject to copyright protection but rather whether they can use that protection to prevent people from conducting basic repairs on the vehicles they own. And that is a public policy question.

4. So, what is the proper public policy: should the DMCA be allowed to be used as a legal sledgehammer by which manufacturers can bludgeon owners and thereby force them to do their repairs in ways that lock them forever in to the manufacturer? It would certainly seem not. Indeed, when framed in this way, the manufacturers' position becomes extreme and even outrageous. Well, EFF, et al. are doing a good job of arguing this in the relevant places to try to shape the law fairly on this point. They are to be commended for this and, in this sense, what John Deere is arguing is pretty despicable.

5. But none of this means that they own your tractor after you buy it. Nor does it mean that copyright doesn't apply to the software they develop. It can and it does. It is just that copyright has limits and, when pushed beyond those limits, loses its salutary purpose and becomes obnoxious and damaging.

6. As a final point, nothing in John Deere's position challenges the idea of "ownership" as we know it. By framing the issue in this way, this article (in my view) tries to play on common sympathies but does so in a very misleading way. I believe this only weakens what is otherwise a sound position on preventing misuse of the DMCA. It also misstates the law pretty badly. So here are my two cents trying to correct this.


Your logic is sound. Point 4 is the real argument about what the actual intent of these companies is; The fact that these companies are using the DMCA as a thinly veiled attempt to limit consumer choice and destroy competitive secondary markets. Both of which are repeatedly upheld when legislation or courts take action. Hence the the banning of "Tie in Sales" provisions in warranties on goods.

>Generally, tie-in sales provisions are not allowed. Such a provision would require a purchaser of the warranted product to buy an item or service from a particular company to use with the warranted product in order to be eligible to receive a remedy under the warranty. The following are examples of prohibited tie-in sales provisions.[1]

Regardless of how the DMCA arguments play out, at least the automakers will have difficulties moving forward as there is a long fought battle over not releasing service information on in-car computer and diagnostic information to third-party repair service provides. There hasn't been legislation over the issue because automakers volunteered to release information on service and tools required to service in car computer systems.[2] It would most likely be easy to build a legal case against an auto company that required you to take your warrantied car to a franchised dealership for warrantied replacement of a defective circuit board. So in a not too hard to imagine hypothetical scenario where a bug in the car's cam timing software cause mechanical failure, but the auto manufacturer refuses to sell the replacement part (replacement software) or tools required to perform service to third-party service providers because of software licensing, would that not fall under Magnuson-Moss Act if the repair would be warrantied?

[1]https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/bus...

[2]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motor_Vehicle_Owners'_Right_to_...

[edit] spelling/format


The people who have the money to buy the mega-tractors you see in the article don't care. That's why, unless someone outside the industry makes a stink, nothing will happen.

These are giga-corporations who are 'family owned' in name only. If they don't rent, they operate that machine for a few years, play the tax game, and trade it even-money for a new one. To them, ownership doesn't matter. Their service contracts with implement dealers let them not worry about who owns what. All they care about is whether or not it works.

(Off topic now) Between this and the stupidly high price for land, it's small farmers who are getting left in the dust. I say this in every thread related to farming; I am in my early 30's and I guarantee I live to see the death of the actual family farm.


Disagree. The family owned farmers care too. For the big equipment, like combines, there's a handful of people everyone pays to have their fields harvested. This person get's compensation in the form of money and other services (someone else will plow their field for instance).

People own their own tractors and share time to get things done, otherwise you'd have to own all of the equipment (which is only justified when you've got a giant factory farm). More of the small farms own new tractors, as the 70s era tractors have been overhauled to the point of junk.

This is the current status of small town Iowa at least.


Iowan here. There are almost no family farms left at all. My neighbor would desperately like to be a farmer. But the scrubby 40-acre field across from his house just sold for $400,000. He'd get maybe 120 bushels of corn off of it. Current price per bushel: $3.80. So $456 income per acre == $18,240 per year. That's half the mortgate payments. Not to mention the cost of working the field. So a lost cause.

The 13 farmers that lived and worked on my road when I was a kid are ALL gone. City folks rent those houses; corporations farm those fields.


One wonders how the corporations farm them. The situation you describe doesn't sound like it would be any more economically feasible for them to work than your neighbor.

(Hm. Random calculation: 120 bushels of corn at 56 lbs per bushel, per acre, is about 11 metric tons per hectare[1]. According to the FDA[2], the US average projected production for 2014/2015 is 10.7 metric tons (the world average is about half that), so your field is pretty decent.)

[1] Thank you, units! You have: (181 * 56) pounds per acre You want: metrictons per hectare * 11.360947 / 0.088020829

[2] http://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/production.pdf


The corporate farms can do it courtesy of massive scale leverage and typically inexpensive borrowing costs.

The average person might pay 4.5% to 7% for that $400,000 property. A sizable corporation can borrow for 20 years at half those rates.

Better yet, the big corporation has cash reserves and cash flow from their big existing operation, and can buy the property outright. That property then yields, say, 5% per year on the cash invested - which obliterates what all corporations are getting on cash or cash equivalents.

The corporate farm can redirect 100% of that property's production toward paying for the property and farming costs, without harming itself in the process. If done correctly this becomes a perpetually expanding machine, the same premise that has led to consolidation in other previously highly fractured industries. Warren Buffett (among others) is presently attempting to do this in auto dealerships for example.

It's the same reason Costco can operate quite successfully on a 2.x% operating profit margin, whereas most businesses will tip over rapidly with that slim of a buffer.

The small farmer will constantly struggle to not drown by comparison.


40 acres is probably about the absolute minimum worthwhile size to farm corn and it would be handled by a tractor much smaller than the one shown in the article. And that's probably if you inherited the land for free. A "normal" farm will have hundreds or thousands of acres of corn, so the cost of equipment is amortized across a much larger crop volume.


>One wonders how the corporations farm them. The situation you describe doesn't sound like it would be any more economically feasible for them to work than your neighbor.

They don't have to pay for a house per 40 acres.


Mega corporations have economies of scale on their side for production costs, and likely much better interest rates on the land. So they can farm the land for cheaper, and the cost of the land on a per-annus basis is cheaper too.


Plus they have more access to getting government subsidies and price controls.


Maybe not. Much of that stuff is designed to help family farms in particular.


181? Where did that come from, idiot?

120 bushels per acre is about 7.5 tons per hectare, which probably makes it a bit low for economic farming.

     You have: (120 * 56) pounds per acre
     You want: metrictons per hectare
	     * 7.5321198
	     / 0.13276475


There is only one farm on my road that doesn't have the next generation poised to take or already has been taken over by the operation, and even in that case I believe there is interest from the grandchildren. From my anecdotal experience, the future of family farms looks fairly bright.


"Iowan here. There are almost no family farms left at all."

We still have family farms in North Dakota, so I guess it might be a regional thing. Also, for those counting incorporations (like a couple of newspapers), you have to be stupid not to incorporate.


Sure, every farmer left is incorporated. My Dad led that movement in the 60's. I count a family farm as one that a family lives on, owns and works.


That part of the comment was directed at some newspapers that seem to not get the fact that family farms understand liability, taxes, etc. to incorporate. I've seen some really dumb statistics on the subject.

kudos to your Dad


That may be true in Iowa, but in Utah, there are still quite a few family farms. Even if we are a shrinking minority, it still seems worthwhile to fight to own our own small pieces of equipment.


Which town? I'd imagine this is pretty common in places near Des Moines/Cedar Rapids suburb type towns. My observations come from living in Blakesburg, IA -- town of 400 people.


Southern Johnson County, south of Iowa City. Nothing suburban about it.


Small world Joe, I'm a Hawkeye. Go Hawks!


Is this land that is being bought for future subdivisions? Definitely have seen this in areas by suburban areas. Certainly not all farming is being done at a loss?


Farming is a lot like a startup, except maybe drawn out over more years than tech people like to see.

You invest everything you have into a business that will return you very little, at least in the start. As you start to grow you put your profits into growth. Finally, as you reach retirement age the debts are hopefully paid off and you are actually making money for the first time. You're also sitting on millions of dollars worth of assets that are now fully in your name. When you are ready to retire, you sell it all.

In other words: You live in poverty over your working career so that you can cash out later in life, while hopefully not going bust in the meantime. The profitability of the business is dependant on the market and the weather, but even more dependant on what stage your business is at. Early stage businesses are apt to lose money most years, but late stage businesses should make money most years.


This sounds like you are describing what has occurred for farmers who started 30 or 40 years ago and are retiring now. I assume most farmers who retired decades ago weren't sitting on millions; certainly my grandfather wasn't.


> Certainly not all farming is being done at a loss?

A big corp can calculate differently from your small farmers. It's OK to them if the field turns profitable finally in 20 or 30 years because they have enough other sources of income to pay for the mortgage (or buy the field out of pocket).

The small farmer on the other hand would be bankrupt by then.


No, no development anywhere around. I'm not sure why the price went up. I bought my land in the 90's and it was ~$1000/acre. Now its 10X that. Probably a bubble.


Why do they want to be a corn farmer? (Just curious. I don't know anything about the business of outdoor farming in Iowa.)

It seems like you could make the mortgage if you can grow specialty crops - http://www.profitableplantsdigest.com/10-most-profitable-spe...

Also, indoor growing is said to make certain crops grow 5x faster with 5x less resources. Here's one company that seems to be growing (they're opening a large facility in my state) - http://aerofarms.com/


Specialty crops depend on the availability of somebody to buy them. My brother tried that last, before he gave up.


An alternative to specialty crops is regular crops but higher up the value-add chain.

Corn -> corn mash -> fermented corn mash -> ethanol -> bourbon -> aged bourbon

40 acres of corn gets you nowhere. 40 acres of corn converted to bourbon gets you generational wealth.


Ha! This is what all Appalachian farmers did in the 1700's, with no roads and long distances to market. They converted corn to whiskey, concentrating the wealth. It was George Washington that ruined that with his regressive Whiskey Tax. Our modern caricature of the moonshining mountain yokel was created way back then, to marginalize poor farmers.


Aeroponics sounds interesting, but the fact is we have almost a billion acres of farmland. Maybe some distant day we'll convert that to 200 million acres of aeroponics facilities, but that seems unlikely.


I agree with you, both local farmers I talk to and family are speaking of the new generation being brought up farming. There's still a lot of family involvement in the industry and those young farmers taking over the family land are extremely interested in relevant and modern technology. They'll be a huge driving force in the coming years.

And farmers still talk. If Farmer Brown and Farmer Ted are sittin' down at the local terminal having their coffee they talk about their equipment. Word of mouth still matters huge in the areas I work in.


I know they care, too. But, they lack the political pull, money and time to address these issues.

Small town Illinois is similar to Iowa apparently, except for the last section. We do share labor, and rent/trade labor for the use of large machinery. But, the market for older machinery is still very strong. I bought 2 1970's masseys at auction last year, and one small mid-90's JD this year. The bids were competitive, but the price was fair.


It is still a thing for people to take their combines down south and work their way back to the north. My Dad and some of my coworkers did that in summer as youths. Pay is pretty good for someone with no degree and you don't get anytime to spend the money. Nicer now than back in the day since the cabs have all sorts of extras like satellite radio, air conditioning, and GPS.


"All they care about is whether or not it works."

Which is why they care more about this issue than someone without a mega-tractor. These vehicles need to be operational when they're called upon, every minute of downtime costs a substantial amount of money that adds up incredibly fast. Sure, they have service contracts but waiting on a technician and waiting even longer for a replacement part is out of the question. A broken sensor will disable a tractor even if it would run perfectly fine without it. Mega farms care about losing the ability to improvise repairs in the field and/or take the risk of long term damage if its outweighed by the cost of the short term downtime.

I've experienced the results of an ECU that can disable a perfectly functional vehicle. I had a ride day with one of our service technicians in our Class 7 truck. The "Check Engine" light had been coming on intermittently throughout the day but we ignored it as it came on inconsistently and we were already 2 hours behind. On our way back to our branch the light came on again at highway speed and 30 seconds later the engine went into "limp home" mode and then shut itself off. We came to a rest on the side of the highway, tilted slightly into a ditch. After calling the local service manager we were informed that the head gasket had blown and the last technician to drive the truck was supposed to refill the coolant and let us know about the issue. We hiked down the road with the empty coolant bottles the last tech left for us and brought back 20 gallons of water, filling the expansion tank. So we should be good as long as we kept tabs on the water level, right? Nope. The water level sensor was placed in in a position where we couldn't fill the tank high enough for it to read the tank as full due to the angle of the truck in the ditch. It wouldn't start without a "safe" reading from the sensor and we couldn't level the truck out without it's own power. That sensor left us stranded for 3 hours until a repair truck arrived and had us running in less than 10 minutes by jacking up the low side of the truck. Now imagine losing half a day during harvest for the same bullshit reason.


Not to be nitpicky, but a vehicle with a blown head gasket is not a "perfectly functional vehicle." I'm amazed you were able to drive any distance with it at all. Must have been a tiny leak: I've blown head gaskets on two vehicles and the most I was able to get was about 5 miles before all the coolant went out the exhaust.


>but a vehicle with a blown head gasket is not a "perfectly functional vehicle."

…leading us back to why the sensors try to stop you completing the destruction of your engine. No common sense.


Maybe a BIT off topic...but I've got some experience here...We're seeing the death of EXCLUSIVELY family farms. The truly family farms that are surviving and even thriving are those that are diversifying. They're using their tractors to plant their soy beans than leasing them to the neighbor to plant their corn or wheat. Leasing their neighbors trucks to deliver their corn while the neighbors use them for wheat. All the while keeping the trucks/tractors/* on the move the entire year.

The issue in the article is starting to hit medium sized farms. When old tractors broke they pulled them into the shop and fixed them. Now they can't even diagnose without having the local dealer come out. During harvest time a tractor being down for 12 hours is HUGE. Like make it or break your year huge.

Even the "medium sized" tractors require a service tech with a laptop to come out for almost everything. Want to shift around your planting? Tech. Get a new field? Tech. Changing the type of seeds? tech. Farmers HATE those techs.

Also this issue is a HUGE issue in cars and other consumer things. Which is where it will probably be fought in the end. If I buy a car today, in 20 years it's pretty assured I will NOT be able to find a computer or any information about the ECU on how to tune the engine or use the ECU to diagnose drive train issues. They're hiding the ECU specs in the name of safety and emissions. In the end it's hurting consumers and shops in a big way.


Lots of family farms own tractors worth more than $200K, and combines worth more than $500K. They're paying significant interest to the bank for the privilege, but owning equipment that can cover twice the land in a day is a lot cheaper than buying and maintaining two smaller tractors (and accompaning accessories) and hiring a farmhand.


Like my family.

Also, small farmers buy a lot of tractors second, third, fourth-hand. Many are still running 50 years later. This is as much an attempt to kill the secondary market and the right to resell.

Without being able to buy and fix up used farm parts/equipment, many (including my family) would be fiscally unable to farm - full stop.


This is something to consider with any software-driven systems now... what's the realistic lifetime of the system? Will the vendor always be there to support the software? Ten year old software is a problem. Twenty year old software is a HUGE problem, from a vendor point of view.


There will always be tinkerers that take outdated hardware and breathe new life into it via new custom software. The problem lies in the new legal restraints placed around the marriage of the software and the hardware. I'll add, when I say "tinkerer" I'm not talking about an amateur hobbyist. I'm talking about the professionals who live and breathe in the world of after-market parts and their repair.


So this is the plot to Robots then?


>but owning equipment that can cover twice the land in a day is a lot cheaper

It can make the difference between a successful harvest or not; but neither strategy is a guarantee. As an example, if you have your cotton defoliated and then your harvester goes on strike for two or more days, any rain in the interim will destroy your crop.

Hiring a farmhand is cheap. Really, they work for almost nothing. But; the ones who know how to run the equipment are busy at harvest time.


I guess it depends on where you live. In Saskatchewan you're competing against the oil industry for workers, so full-time hands aren't cheap.


It's not just mega-tractors that are software-controlled these days. It's all tractors. Including those used by "small family farms".


I understand that. It's not just tractors either, it's every implement from planters to bailers to rippers, discs and plows. Everything is chipped and controlled from the main-screen in the cab.

But the individuals who have the power, money, and influence to do actually change anything are the large-scale farmers. They are not invested in changing the system; it works for them.


Perennial polyculture food forests reduces the advantage of high tech equipment. Nature does the work of growing. Replanting is rare. Harvesting is more of a manual process.


Polyculture farming may be the next big thing in farming, enabled by machine vision automated systems.

A typical small farmer in Saskatchewan can harvest 100-200 acres of wheat by himself on a single day using a modern combine harvester. Manual harvesting is not an option.


I don't think people outside of the prairies understand the scale of some of these farms.

The average Sask farm was 1668 acres as of 2011.


And that 1668 acre farm is not a corporate farm, it's a family farm run by a single operator without hired hands.


May still be corporate, because corporations are a way of structuring a business, not an indication of how large or how many people are involved with the business. I expect most family farms are also corporations or even multiple corporations.


No. Most family farms, at least in my part of the states, are not corporations. They are small businesses in that they have some tax exemptions for being farms, but they are not incorporated.

Only the 'slick' farmers (you know, them city folks) or large businesses that are 'family farms' in name only are incorporated.


In fact, I know that several of my neighbours have a corporation setup for each generation of the family farm. These aren't slick city folks or even large businesses. They're every day family farmers that farm the exact same way I do (my farm isn't incorporated). But, like you suggest, maybe it is regional thing.


A 1668 acre farm around here is a small farm, and is probably not incorporated. But certainly many are. But as you said, incorporation does not make it less of a family farm.


As that many acres is difficult to understand, that's a little over 2.6 square miles.


And John Deere makes combines as wide as 30 ft. So a 30ft. combine would have to drive 457.6 miles to harvest that farm. And that's not done at highway speed!


What are the yields like? What would doing that for all food do to the price of food?


This[1] RAND paper indicates perennial polyculture farming could increase yields for poor, third-world, subsistence farmers. Which is a very good thing.

But it seems unlikely to approach the yields of annual monoculture farming. (One quote: "The biggest difference, however, comes from considering perennial cereals. Most of the cereals that people eat (such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn/maize) are grown in annual plantings and often in monocultures. Since cereals account for at least half of dietary energy world-wide, converting that production to perennial polycultures with mixed intercropping would be a significant change in worldwide agriculture.") That's a bad thing; I'd like to see more use of these techniques, for all of the primary benefits mentioned in the paper. (The yield thing for subsistence farmers is a secondary benefit.)

[1] And it would help if I added the link: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/occasional_papers/... [PDF]


Yields are pretty high. Though there are many products. So you won't necessarily have high yielding corn, but you will overall have more food & materials.

The fruits tend to be more of a mixed bag that is best distributed & consumed locally.

> What would doing that for all food do to the price of food?

Note that conventional petrol agriculture is heavily subsidized. Removing the subsidy will increase the price of food. It will favor small scale, high nutrition, gardening/farming. It will reduce waste as well.


"The fruits tend to be more of a mixed bag that is best distributed & consumed locally."

Humorously, I grew up in the Texas panhandle, an area with significant agricultural production due to modern irrigation techniques. There aren't a whole lot of fruits grown there, though. The irrigation requirements would be truly ridiculous.


> Removing the subsidy will increase the price of food.

Then it would be wrong to do remove that subsidy. Poor people need to eat, too.


If you want to help poor people eat, you should give poor people money to help them eat, rather than paying farmers to make one specific type of farming easier and distorting the market to artificially favor something that's actually less efficient (and may have all sorts of crazy side effects on the rest of the world).

Favoring direct intervention to fix the actual problem should be axiomatic, really.


> If you want to help poor people eat, you should give poor people money to help them eat

The more food we can make per unit resource, the more food we have, given that resources are finite.

Giving the poor more money does nothing to change that.


At this point we're producing more food in the US than we need to feed the population of the US. That's why we can divert portions of our food production to non-food products like plastic or fuel. The problem has always been and will always be making sure everyone has enough to eat, and the biggest problem there is not everyone has enough money to afford even the cheapest, nastiest food. Giving the poor more money might not be the only or even the best answer, but it is an answer.

No one in the US is starving because we can't produce enough food. People starve because their access to the food is artificially hindered. In fact, we're producing so much food the the US government pays farmers to not produce food so that prices will remain high enough to make a profit.


> The more food we can make per unit resource, the more food we have, given that resources are finite. Giving the poor more money does nothing to change that.

In the real world operating under market rules, there's not one rule that determines how much food we have. It's a function of how much you invest in the operation -- land, tractors, farm labor, irrigation, livestock feed, food processing, et cetera. People know how much food to produce and how to produce it because of PRICES. Higher food prices are encourage people to reduce food waste (by making it more expensive, making concepts like "leftovers" or "canning" more attractive) or divert resources towards producing food (e.g. by starting new farms, buying better farming equipment, or starting a garden in their backyard). It also discourages inefficient forms of feeding people by raising the price (e.g. making meat more expensive because it takes a boatload of resources to feed a cow). Lower food prices reduce the profit of farming, discouraging the over-exploitation of the land or over-investment in expensive capital like tractors.

In a subsidized environment, the real cost of things is detached from the sticker price at the supermarket. Food is still expensive, but it's not the consumer who's paying for it -- it's the taxpayer. So farms buy more heavy equipment than would naturally be efficient and burn more gasoline than is efficient, food processors waste more food than is efficient, people toss food in the trash more than is efficient, people grow rice in the California desert instead of importing it from somewhere that actually has rain, and midwestern farms destroy more prairie lands and Nature than is efficient, because why not? Taxpayers are paying for it, all crazy-indirectly, and they'd have to go through Congress and go up against big agribusiness lobbyists to get any of their money back. (Then the taxpayers find that they can't pay for other nice things they might want, because of the money going to taxes, and the economy suffers.)

By giving people who need money, money, instead of giving producers a subsidy, you avoid all that. Everyone eats, farms produce the right amount of food with a sane amount of tractors, big factory farms aren't given money that funky forest-culture farms aren't and so each style of farm prevails on its own merits, people with backyards start gardens and make preserves, et cetera.

TLDR: screw with the market's price mechanisms and you screw everything up

Postscript: This is all the fault of the FDR administration when you get down to it.


What?

Subsidies (as they are practiced now) encourage non-sustainable and wasteful food production.


Government subsidies corn which is then used to make cheap high fructose corn syrup. Subsidies only go to a handful of crops.


I wonder if it will ever make sense for full vertical integration of agriculture? Could one company own the seed DNA, land, all related equipment, and sell the outputted product directly to consumers?

Could technology ever give one company such a great advantage that they could buy land at a price which would be a great loss to everyone else? The answer could be less about technology and more about the subsidized enforcement of intellectual property law and the strength or weakness of anti-trust law.

We look at this from an IP right/wrong standpoint, but a lot of moral questions regarding food production sit outside that realm as long as many people are either not getting enough food or getting too much of food that is damaging their bodies.


> I am in my early 30's and I guarantee I live to see the death of the actual family farm.

Maybe the small corn and soybean farms. Which is a race to the bottom anyway.

Small farms are booming here in MI but they are all either in veggies, mixed livestock systems, fruit, dairy or specialty crops of some sort.

Small farmers need to think outside the box, adjust to the changing times and maximize their ROI/acre.

- software dev with agroecology background


Independent farming is under siege by corporate agriculture, but it isn't dead. And independent farmers need tractors too.


It doesn't help that over 70% of farming subsidies go to ~10% of the farms in the country.


This doesn't only affect the US. Pretty much the entire world buys John Deere, Ford, Lamborghini, etc tractors.


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