The Librarian of Congress has allowed the inspection and modification of the software in cars and other vehicles. This ‘permission’ has come in the form of exemption from Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). That’s good news, the bad news is that this exemption won’t come into effect for another year and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which filed the request for the exemption, will have to fight for it again after three years.
The decision has become increasingly important after many car manufacturers, most notably Volkswagen, were found to use software for circumventing emissions testing. The car manufacturers were using copyright laws to stop users from inspecting the software of their own vehicles. Their argument was that customers may ‘tweak’ software to circumvent safety and emissions laws.
DMCA Section 1201 prohibits anyone from circumventing technological measures that control access to copyrighted works. Car manufacturers were able to use this section to take legal action against anyone who wanted to inspect and/or modify the code to improve performance and unlock features hidden by manufacturers.
The access control clause was added to prohibit unauthorized copying of works such as music, movies, etc. through players. But as software is being increasingly used in our lives — from homes to cars — the same rules, which are applicable for movies or music should not be applied everywhere else. To allow fair use and the ability to inspect software, The Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 was proposed, but both houses have take no action on it so far.
Unless such a bill is passed the only option bodies like EFF have is to keep filing petitions for exemptions. It’s an increasingly painful process as any exemption is granted for only three years. Then you have to file again even if there was no objection to the existing exemption and waste time in rehashing the argument.
Some news outlets are spreading unnecessary fear that ‘messing with cars can cost you’ and citing examples like ‘disabling the air-bags’ before reselling the cars threatening the life of the new owner. Yes, that’s very much possible, but resellers like CarMax may run diagnostic tests or reset the car software before reselling a car, very much the way you reset your phone before you resell it.
Yes, there are legitimate concerns around people ‘messing’ with car software. But there are laws to address those concerns. Using copyright to achieve that is not the right way.
The Volkswagen case is evidence that we can’t blindly trust manufacturers. We need to take the steering wheels into our hands.