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Automakers Employing Copyright Law Against Hobbyists

As software finds its way into more and more pieces of previously analog equipment, it expands the reach of copyright law. This has led to new groups being forced to navigate the complex American intellectual property system. One such group includes car hobbyists, who are now being forced to deal with car manufacturer copyrights just to repair or modify their own vehicles.

The issue arises because many cars now come equipped with electronic control units (ECUs). These ECUs are the brains of a car, responding to information that comes in from sensors and adjusting how the car runs to improve performance. However, the way ECUs operate is based on a set of parameters set up by the manufacturers. Some drivers dislike those parameters, changing them to improve things like the car’s power or fuel efficiency.

Background Law

As it turns out, modifying the code like this may run afoul of a part of copyright law known as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA contains something referred to as an anti-circumvention provision. The anti-circumvention provision makes it a violation of copyright law to circumvent any security designed to protect a person’s copyright. Importantly, this makes circumvention a violation even if the person does not actually do anything illegal with the underlying copyrighted material. The anti-circumvention provision has been controversial because of the way it interacts with fair use. The DMCA has allowed copyright holders to place technological safeguards on their copyrighted works to extract licensing revenue for things that would otherwise be fair use.

Copyright on Cars

This anti-circumvention provision impacts car hobbyists because many manufacturers have put some sort of encryption or other safeguard on their ECUs, requiring people to circumvent that encryption before modifying the car’s code. Importantly, not all modifications actually violate the DMCA. Some manufacturers do not place security measures on their code, and some code in ECUs does not meet the initial standards for copyright protection. Consequently, people modifying their cars exist in a legal grey area where the legality of those modifications changes depending on what car and what code they change.

In order to remedy this confusion, people have requested that the U.S. Copyright Office create a general exception to the anti-circumvention provision for people modifying their cars’ programming. The Copyright Office is currently considering the request, and has begun accepting comments from the general public with regard to the advisability of the exception.

Multiple car manufacturers have entered comments, arguing that such an exception would be ill-advised. They point out that these sorts of modifications can be dangerous. People can make mistakes in their code that can cause car accidents or create vulnerabilities for people to hack into drivers’ cars. However, the group that initially proposed the exception has pointed out that drivers making these modifications have also discovered similar vulnerabilities and dangerous errors in the code put out by the manufacturers.

Copyright law has managed to find its way into more and more areas of everyday life. If you have questions about copyright law or have found yourself in a copyright dispute, contact a Florida copyright attorney at Pike & Lustig, LLP today.

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