This week the government issued an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to allow the modification of automotive electronics systems. You might not know it, but this has far reaching effects on the entire automotive industry and on you as the owner of a car. I’ll show you why.
You walk into a Barnes & Noble, you pick up a copy of Look Me in the Eye, you hand the cashier money and you leave the store. The book now belongs to you, right? Of course it does. You are free to write notes in the margins, sell it second-hand to a friend, or even rip it up if you felt so inclined. What you can’t do is copy portions of it and claim them as your own work; you own your copy of the book, but not the copyright.
This is pretty straightforward and doesn’t violate most people’s understanding of copyright and ownership. But let's say you skipped the Barnes & Noble and instead went to Walmart to buy a Sony PS3, is it any different? Actually it is. When the PS3 was released, many tech enthusiasts were eager to buy such a powerful computer for such a low price, despite it masquerading as a gaming machine. They would install Linux on their PS3 and use it as a desktop computer. To their dismay, Sony responded with lawsuits claiming copyright violation. Under the DMCA corporations have gained sweeping powers to effectively retain ownership even after the item has been sold. Apple has given the same treatment to iPhone owners who have had the audacity to try to install software that Apple hasn’t personally signed off on, i.e. iPhone owners who "jailbreak" their phones.
Copyright has gone far beyond what its original intent was, and beyond how most people understand it to work. Instead of being used to prevent copying, it is now also used to prevent modification – even if there is no commercial angle to the modification and the only purpose is better satisfying the wants of the owner. Maybe taking notes in the margin of your favorite book isn’t so clearly legal after all; the fact that such an argument could be made demonstrates the ridiculousness of the DMCA and how it hurts customers.
Auto manufacturers have exploited the you-own-what-you-buy-except-for-when-we-don’t-like-how-you-use-it DMCA too. Want to reprogram your engine ECU? You might be violating the DMCA. Really, any work done on the electronics in a car risks violating the DMCA. This exposed tinkerers and independent shops alike to a tremendous risk, leaving official dealerships as the only safe route for these repairs. But fret not, all of that changed this past Tuesday. In a first, the government has issued an exception to the DMCA to explicitly allow tinkering with automotive electronics and software.
So what pushed the government to do this? In large part it was the recent VW scandal. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued that the DMCA had prevented independent shops and tinkerers from testing and identifying VW’s deception for years – and the government listened. That said, it’s a real shame that it takes a very public deception being uncovered to change the law. And it begs the question- how much deception, negligence, and incompetence is still being covered up in all of the areas without a DMCA exemption? Don’t expect an answer, because as the EFF has pointed out the DMCA has a chilling effect on security research. Researchers of both the academic and DIY types steer clear of looking for such problems because by finding them they may violate the DMCA and come under legal pressure. That means the only major effort to root out security vulnerabilities and misrepresentations is under the table, and the hackers doing such work don’t tend to have the good of the public in mind.
The exemption on Tuesday is a great start, but in the grand scheme it is a mere baby step. The DMCA is preventing you from having products that you can trust. And it is quite telling how many corporations view their customers when they pursue unpaid volunteers trying to fix their mistakes. You’d think they’d be happy such people are out there. To be sure, some corporations are – but the good guys don’t have the same lobbying power. And that’s because the supporters of the DMCA view their customers as their own assets, as subjects who are only allowed to play with the toys they’ve bought within the officially sanctioned sandbox. I hope the trend reverses, but we’re going to need to expose deception, negligence, or the more benign incompetence in far more areas than the automotive industry alone.
We strive for the highest quality of repair. Our customers are the owners of their cars, not the manufacturers. This exemption helps both our customers and us; it explicitly clarifies that when you go to get your car repaired all you should be thinking about is the quality of work you’re going to receive. The car’s previous owner, the manufacturer, or anyone else has no place putting themselves in the middle of that. We rely on satisfying the wants of our customers to the greatest extent that is possible, and maintaining good communications throughout the process. You thought you owned your car before, now thanks to this exemption you actually do. This change puts the choice of who works on your car back where it should be – completely in your hands.
~guest blogger: Jack Robison