Colorado’s new right-to-repair law ensures tractor and wheelchair owners get the parts they need

Colorado’s governor signed a refreshingly straightforward “right-to-repair” bill into law this afternoon, requiring companies to provide resources like parts, firmware and manuals for devices that they previously kept secret and proprietary even if an owner wanted to do the repairs themselves.

Colorado’s “Consumer Repair Bill of Rights Act” is one of many such bills that have been proposed over the years, and is among the simplest, having graduated from a bill intended to help wheelchair owners do their own repairs to cover all “agricultural equipment” as well.

As those in the intellectual property and hardware obsolescence space are likely to know, farms have become an unlikely frontier for change in the tech world due to companies like John Deere growing inflexible regarding the repair of their vehicles and devices.

A tractor, in these days of precision agriculture, is of course more than just a replacement for a pair of oxen — it’s as high-tech as any modern car, with GPS, automation, software updates and all the rest. And like many cars, repairs of some parts have become impossible to perform by owners — and increasingly even specialists.

Replacing a tire, no problem — but more complicated issues or accidents have increasingly required the vehicle to be brought in to the manufacturer or an authorized agent, the only people in possession of the proprietary parts or even access to the software running on the things.

This long ago passed from inconvenience to serious problems for many people, and tractors have become a sort of stand-in for tech in general that people feel locked out of maintaining for themselves — inasmuch that the manufacturers have deliberately excluded them in order to reap the benefits of being the exclusive repair shop for every tractor they sell.

The question many have asked, as with phones, computers and other forms of tech, is simply: If you can’t repair it simply because they won’t let you, can you really say you own it?

HB23-1011 applies strictly to farm stuff like combines, sprayers, balers and so on, as well as the powered wheelchairs that were its original target. The manufacturers thereof are required to:

provide parts, embedded software, firmware, tools, or documentation, such as diagnostic, maintenance, or repair manuals, diagrams, or similar information (resources), to independent repair providers and owners of the manufacturer’s agricultural equipment to allow an independent repair provider or owner to conduct diagnostics, maintenance, or repair services on the owner’s agricultural equipment.

And this at reasonable cost does not disincentivize people from doing their own repairs. Failure to do this will be classified as a deceptive trade practice. The law has two caveats: The manufacturer is not obligated to “divulge any trade secrets” in the process of complying, and owners or repair providers are not allowed to deactivate safety mechanisms or infringe on copyright or patent laws. That last bit may prove a sticky one, but it would not have been allowed anyway — mentioning it is more of a “and just so you know” rather than a statutory prohibition.

“I am proud to sign this important bipartisan legislation that saves hardworking farmers and ranchers time and money on repairs, and supports Colorado’s thriving agriculture industry,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a statement accompanying the signing of this and other bills today. “This is a common-sense bipartisan bill to help people avoid unnecessary delays from equipment repairs. Farmers and ranchers can lose precious weeks and months when equipment repairs are stalled due to long turnaround times by manufacturers and dealers. This bill will change that.”

He calls out State Representative Brianna Titone for her leadership on this; I contacted her for comments and she offered the following statement:

This bill has been a long time coming for the Ag community and is a major milestone in fostering real ownership of purchased equipment. Just this year, 16 states have proposed bills on agricultural equipment. In January 2024, farmers will finally have more repair options to keep them in the fields and out of the repair shops. We believe that with any new law there’s always a possibility of a lawsuit. However, the initial indications show John Deere is already making efforts to provide the materials the law requires.

There have been calls for nationwide right-to-repair laws, but like everything else they tend to get bogged down in partisan politics or maneuvering. Colorado’s law is straightforward and simple enough to serve not just as an example, but a flexible and generalizable example other states’ laws could adopt.

No doubt the industries impacted negatively (mostly farm equipment dealers, one imagines, as well as the corporations that manufacture the gear) will have something to say about this. But they’ll survive — John Deere in February reported just a hair shy of $2 billion in quarterly profits, more than doubling its net income year over year. From its growing self-repair resources, the company seems to have seen the writing on the wall as well.

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