It's Now (Temporarily) Legal to Hack Your Own Car

Car hacking
Photo: iStockphoto

You may own your car, but you don’t own the software that makes it work— that still belongs to your car’s manufacturer. You’re allowed to use the software, but in the past, trying to alter it in any way (including fixing it by yourself when it breaks or patching security holes) was a form of copyright infringement. iFixit, Repair.org, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and many others think this is ridiculous, and they’ve been lobbying the government to try to change things.

A year ago, the U.S. Copyright Office agreed that people should be able to modify the software that runs cars that they own, and as of last Friday, that ruling came into effect. It’s good for only two years, though, so get hacking.

The legal and technical distinction between physical ownership and digital ownership is perhaps most familiar in the context of DVD movies. You can go to the store and buy a DVD, and when you do, you own that DVD. You don’t, however, own the movie that comes on it: Instead, it’s more like you own limited rights to watch the movie, which is a very different thing. If the DVD is protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) says that you are not allowed to circumvent that software, even if you’re just trying to watch the movie on a different device, change the region restriction so that you can watch it in a different country, or do any number of other things that it really seems like you should be able to do with a piece of media that you paid 20 bucks for.

Cars work in a similar way. You own the car as a physical object, but you only have limited rights to the software that controls it, because the car's manufacturer holds the copyright on that software. This prevents you from making changes to the software, even if those changes are to fix problems or counter obsolescence, as well as preventing you from investigating the security of the software, which can have very serious and direct consequences for you as the owner and driver. It’s also worth pointing out that (especially in older vehicles like the 1995 Volvo 940 Turbo belonging to a certain anonymous journalist) relatively simple computerized parts can cost a ridiculous amount of money to replace because there is no legal alternative besides buying a new one from the manufacturer, who hasn't made them in 20 years and would much rather you just bought an entirely new car anyway.

Hrmph.

The fundamental point is this, as the Repair Association and iFixit point out in their most recent filing with the U. S. Copyright Office: “It should not require extensive litigation to make clear that purchasing a product gives you basic property rights to do things like repair and modify the thing you’ve bought.”

Happily, the Copyright Office saw things the same way, and included an exemption to the DMCA (now in place) that will:

Allow circumvention of TPMs [technological protection measures] protecting computer programs that control the functioning of a motorized land vehicle, including personal automobiles, commercial motor vehicles, and agricultural machinery, for purposes of lawful diagnosis and repair, or aftermarket personalization, modification, or other improvement. Under the exemption as proposed, circumvention would be allowed when undertaken by...the lawful owner of the vehicle.

This comes with a few caveats, in response to opposition from everyone who you’d probably expect, including the Association of Global Automakers, General Motors, and John Deere, among others. First, you still can’t mess with the vehicle entertainment system, since you could hypothetically use it to commit copyright infringement. You can’t screw around with any kind of telematics that you might find, either. And you’re definitely not allowed to make modifications that break other laws, including emissions laws. The automakers also argued that giving car owners the option to repair their own cars “was unnecessary in any event because vehicle owners have alternative options, such as manufacturer-authorized repair shops and tools.” Uh huh, thanks.

The DMCA exemption granted by the Copyright Office is good for three years from a year ago, since they felt that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation needed a solid 12 months to prepare for all the mayhem that being able to fix your own car is going to cause. This means that by the end of 2018, all of this will be up in the air again.

The good news is that iFixit and Repair.org are already working with the Copyright Office to try to make this permanent, and as long as being legally able to repair things doesn’t somehow lead directly to total anarchy plus the death of the auto industry as we know it, we’d like to imagine that the right to repair philosophy is here to stay.

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