The issue has its roots in a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was signed into law in 1998. Of course, at the time, it didn’t seem that the auto industry would be affected by digital legislation, but now computers are standard in vehicle engines. So, the U.S. Copyright Office is looking into whether or not provisions of the law that protect intellectual property should prohibit people from modifying and tuning their cars.
On the opposing side, the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for civil liberties in the digital world, has requested that Copyright Office provide an exemption for people who want to work on their own vehicles. Every three years, the the Copyright Office holds hearings to consider potential exemptions to the DMCA.
To this point, automakers have filed comments expressing concerns that if people are able to access electronic control units (ECUs), it could lead to “an imbalance by which the negative consequences far outweigh any suggested benefits,” according to the Alliance of Global Automakers. These units control functions such as steering and braking, just to name a few.
Advocates in the auto industry state that tinkering with these components not only constitutes a copyright violation, but poses the potential for serious danger. While on the surface, the idea that people could be prohibited from modifying their own cars seems outrageous, what about the legal concerns if a person alters code that leads to brake failure? Automakers are also concerned that modifications could render cars non-compliant with emissions regulations.
But the opposition isn’t buying it.
“It’s not a new thing to be able to repair and modify cars,” said Kit Walsh, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s actually a new thing to keep people from doing it. There are these specialized agencies that govern what vehicles can lawfully be used for on the road, and they have not seen fit to stop them from repairing cars.”
The EFF points out that auto enthusiasts have been modifying ECUs for years without a problem. In fact, many have created improvements, such as boosted horsepower and improved fuel efficiency. The EFF believes the auto industry’s concerns is more about control and profits than safety.