Whose Car Is It Anyway?
Little by little, it’s become more difficult to tinker with your own car. Now automakers want to make it illegal for anyone to mess around with their creations without their permission. Actually, they’re claiming it’s already illegal, and consumer activists are lobbying the Copyright Office to restore our right to tune and tweak our cars, or simply study their inner workings. What the heck is going on?
Is It Illegal to Tinker?
What’s the Copyright Office have to do with cars? Modern cars contain many computers, all of which are driven by proprietary software. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it a crime to circumvent or defeat (crack) any method used to protect software from unauthorized inspection or modification. Automakers place such protections on the software in their cars’ computers and claim that only authorized personnel can legally access the software.
Now this doesn’t mean you change oil, spark plugs, or tires at home. But it does mean you can’t legally tweak the software that controls your car’s engine to get better mileage or more horsepower, or to see if you can improve its emission control system.
It also means that independent repair shops need automakers’ permission to work on cars, and aftermarket products that interact with cars’ computers need automakers’ permission to do so. Such permission has been widely granted through an industry-wide “memorandum of understanding,” but the MOU is not legally binding and can be revoked by an automaker at will.
And the MOU doesn’t include the owners of cars; you can’t even look at the code that controls your fuel injector, according to automakers. Neither can security researchers who dissect software to protect everyone against bugs and vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit.
Several organizations are lobbying the Copyright Office to create an exemption to DMCA that would enable consumers to examine and modify the software in their cars without fear of prosecution or civil liability. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has an online Fight for Your Right to Repair Your Car petition you can sign. The Copyright Office will make its decision on this exemption in July.
Nothing Downloads Like a Deere…
John Deere made the funniest argument against an exemption. The farm equipment manufacturer warned the Copyright Office that if an exemption is granted, tractors and combines might be modified to download pirated music, movies, and software. Yes, really! Lawyers for John Deere also made an alarming argument in their filing. According to the company, software is so pervasive and integral to the operation of its products that farmers don’t buy tractors and own them; instead, they pay for “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” Stunning…
The auto industry’s response to this proposed DMCA exemption has also been entertaining. The Auto Alliance, a global trade association, argues in a filing with the Copyright Office: “The decision to employ access controls to hinder unauthorized “tinkering” with these vital computer programs is necessary in order to protect the safety and security of drivers and passengers and to reduce the level of non-compliance with regulatory standards.”
There may be programs controlling safety features, such as airbag deployment, that should be locked up. But that doesn’t require locking down everything. The proposed DMCA exemption would apply to far more products than automobiles and combines. The DMCA, as it stands now, can be used to intimidate consumers who hack the software of “smart” kitty litter boxes, coffeemakers, digital thermostats, and a myriad of other common products.
The battle being fought in the Copyright Office is over the very concept of ownership. Once you buy something, is it yours to do with as you please, or not? John Deere says it’s not your tractor; you just bought a long ride in it.
Again, I encourage all to sign the EFF's online petition to encourage the U.S. Copyright Office to restore sanity and strongly affirm the concept of ownership.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 30 Apr 2015
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Whose Car Is It Anyway? (Posted: 30 Apr 2015)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved