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At Prime Choice, we specialize in offering parts so that you can repair your car at home. In the next few years, that could all change. If current pushes from big automakers succeed, we will begin to see the end of DIY repairs, and the end of the backyard mechanic. Many people are familiar with the ongoing battles between producers of digital content (such as movies and music) and customers accessing that content, but now the digital copyright battle is extending itself into cars. While it might be some time before the backyard mechanic truly vanishes, the end could be closer than you think.

DMCA And Cars: You Don’t Own Your Vehicle

In 1998, a copyright law was passed that extended the reach of copyright laws to digital and online content. This means that digital content now fell under the same laws and regulations as print and other forms of media. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA) was created to help protect those who have original content online from being taken advantage of, and to provide a legal way for companies and people to to avoid becoming victims on the new frontier of the internet. Since 1998, the DMCA has been primarily used to target those who illegally download movies or music, or who otherwise created pirated versions of software or information. Sometimes, simply downloading a movie can result in threats of legal action under the DMCA. A notable case of the DMCA being used against an individual is in the 2010 case of Vernor v. Autodesk INC. Tim Vernor had copies of the Autodesk software that he wanted to sell. He had bought the software second hand at a garage sale. The U.S. Court of Appeals would later deem that a software user is a licensee of the software and not an owner, even if you outright purchase the software. This meant that although Vernor had purchased the software, he didn’t own it, and therefore couldn’t legally sell it. This is where the automotive industry is looking to go, if recent attempts at lobbying from GM and other companies are to be believed.

Modern vehicles are controlled by computers. Gone are the days of pure mechanical engines. Many vehicles rely on ECU (engine control unit) chips to control everything under their hoods. Just as computers control cars, lines of code control computers in the form of firmware. This firmware is the IP (intellectual property) of the automaker that produced the car, and is required for the car to run. Like in the case of Vernor v. Autodesk, manufacturers are arguing that altering that code either through changing the ECU chip in your vehicle or chaining other vehicle parts (anything from filters to hoses, even tire size) that can affect how the ECU interprets the engines functions is a violation of copyright law. Your engine runs on firmware in the ECU, and the ECU runs on code that is the IP of the automaker. You don’t own firmware, you are merely a licensee. By altering that code, you violate the license agreement and infringe on copyright laws that protect the IP of the automakers. If it seems confusing and nonsensical, that’s because it is.

John Deere, along with GM, have both been lobbying for this to be made into law. While John Deere doesn’t produce vehicles, they have been doing extensive lobbying to prevent end user access to ECUs, even going as far as to claim that an altered ECU could be used to download music or movies. While it’s incredibly unlikely someone will use a combine harvester to download Game of Thrones, there’s no telling what a creative programmer could come up with.

Automakers: “Cars Are Too Complex And Dangerous To Handle”

Many of you reading this have grown up fixing your own car. You know your way around your vehicle, and feel comfortable doing repairs. Automakers now think that cars are too complex and dangerous for the average person to handle, and that letting any backyard mechanic have access to the inner workings for their car is a recipe for disaster.

The majority of this debate stems from the ECU. At this time, it is unlikely that you’d receive a DMCA notice for changing your own brakes. You could receive a notice for adding a tuned chip to your ECU to boost horsepower or torque, or by using an at home OBD scanner to determine whats wrong with your car. Changing other components that link to the ECU, like tire pressure sensors or fuel lines, could also trigger an altered ECU. The argument from automakers is that too much is controlled by the ECU to let just anyone tinker with it. For example, a common aftermarket part is ECU chips that boost horsepower. If one of these chips were faulty, it could result in a vehicle capable of breaking speed limits with ease. ECU’s could also be altered to allow a vehicle to pass emissions test or to fake compliance. This begs the question, what does a car speeding or emitting too much smog have to do with copyright law? Shouldn’t law enforcement catch speeders and emissions testing catch vehicles producing smog?

Another argument from automakers is that modifying an ECU opens it up to vulnerabilities. As we’ve reported on before, hacking into a car is quickly becoming a growing concern for automakers. The main concern for automakers is liability. If a large number of people find it easy to alter their ECU in a particular car, and those alterations end up in deaths or damages, is the automaker at fault for making it too easy to alter? Consumers aren’t having this argument, expressing that they feel the entire issue is a way for automakers to control service and repairs and ultimately control what happens to the vehicle.

Consumers Fight Back: Protecting The DIY Mechanic

In 2013, after facing threats of DMCA action, consumers world wide scored a victory against heavy handed corporate control with The Unlocking Technology Act. This allowed users who paid for a cellular device over the length of a contract the right to unlock and modify their device as they saw fit. This was one of the first instances where consumers were acknowledged for having control over something they bought. While the act hasn’t officially passed, it has gained wide spread support with many major service providers opting to unlock phones rather than seek the aid of DMCA action.

While the need to protect copyright law and IP is important, it can be all too easy for lawmakers to get carried away in an attempt to defend their bottom line. It seems unlikely that the attempts of certain automakers will get anywhere, and already there has been backlash to the idea that even when you buy a car, you don’t own it and can’t work on it. Automakers aren’t necessarily wrong, letting your average Joe take apart vital engine components and alter them without a proper working knowledge can be dangerous. The problem comes from drawing a line at some point. Somewhere in a purchase, the ownership needs to transfer from the company that produced the product to the consumer that buys it. When you go to a dealership and spend $50,000 on a vehicle, you should be able to do what you want with it. If that voids the warranty or otherwise hinders the vehicle, then so be it.

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