Plan on repairing or modifying a car in the garage this weekend? You might want to first consult a copyright lawyer.
"It gives manufacturers the power to control secondary markets by leveraging the copyright law, if it doesn't include enough of a safety valve." – Kit Walsh
In a development that illustrates just how much cars have become mobile computers on wheels, a privacy group is warning mechanics and car enthusiasts that tinkering with the computers that run dozens of vehicle components, without a manufacturer's approval, may constitute a copyright violation.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog, says the Digital Millennium Copyright Act may prohibit modifying the code that runs these small computers, known as electronic control units (ECU). The organization is asking the US Copyright Office to exempt hobbyists and home mechanics from the law. In the petition, the EFF asks the office to eliminate the legal risks posed to vehicle owners who are "engaged in a decades-old tradition of mechanical curiosity and self-reliance."
Once every three years, the Copyright Office holds hearings to consider whether certain activities should be exempt from the DMCA's Section 1201, which restricts people from circumventing technological measures that control access to "protected works." No dates have yet been set, but a ruling is expected by mid-2015.
"The general principle at stake is that people who own a device are the ones in control of what it does, rather than be constrained to use it only in the way a manufacturer wants," says EFF staff attorney Kit Walsh. "The idea of ownership, in a way, is under threat when the law prevents you from altering a product in any way."