NMA E-Newsletter #327: Did You Know Your Car is Copyright Protected?

Time was when you could tune up your car with a few simple tools, a Chilton’s manual and some elbow grease. Not anymore. Today you almost need an IT degree just to pop the hood. And there’s a good reason for that. Modern vehicles incorporate complicated computers, electronic control units and multiple sensor arrays that constantly monitor and make adjustments to many of your vehicle’s operating systems.

Engine, drivetrain, suspension, brakes, safety systems now run on millions of lines of computer code—code that is protected by copyright law. That means you don’t own it and you’re not supposed to change it, even though it’s in your car. This comes courtesy of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the copyright law that governs what you can do with creative products like movies, music and software.

Under the DMCA, automobile owners who repair or modify their vehicle’s electronic control systems risk committing copyright infringement. Granted, most everyday drivers wouldn’t think of doing such things, but there is a dedicated class of tech-savvy tinkerers who can’t help but tweak and hack their way to better performance and more power. There’s also a thriving market for third-party suppliers of tuning services and tools. (Keep in mind that conducting performance modifications on your vehicle may void the factory warranty, especially if the modifications result in damage to your car.)

The ability to access and analyze vehicle software code also has value beyond the needs of the automotive hobbyist. It has serious research and probative value, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The EFF argues that allowing independent researchers access to the code without fear of legal consequences can identify vulnerabilities with important safety and security implications.

The EFF cites a case in which researchers identified a coding glitch that led to unintended acceleration resulting in a fatal accident. In another, researchers identified a security breach that would allow a remote attacker to assume control of a vehicle’s functions. Without such access, many potentially dangerous software issues would go undetected, the foundation argues.

The EFF lays out its case in a petition to the U.S. Copyright Office/Library of Congress. In it the foundation requests a DMCA exemption so owners, technicians and researchers can legally access vehicle computer code. You can find out more here and add your name to the petition if you’re interested.

This reminds us of the debate around event data recorders (black boxes) and the data they capture. The NMA’s position is that you, as the owner of the vehicle, own the black box and the data it captures, and you should have complete control over who has access to the information and how it is used. But, to date, only 15 states have enacted statutes related to black box privacy issues.

It’s important to realize that black box data and vehicle computer code may be regarded differently from a legal standpoint. Nonetheless, we’re glad to support any effort that gives motorists more freedom to choose the vehicle options and enhancements that make sense for them.

With the advent of advanced vehicle safety features and autonomous cars, our dependence on sophisticated computer programming will only increase. What impact will this have on our vehicle choices, and who will be held responsible if those vehicles fail because of a misplaced 1 or 0?

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