November 4, 2014 | By Kit Walsh

EFF to Librarian of Congress: Let Car Owners Look Under the Hood

The reach of copyright law has expanded so far that it now threatens people's ability to repair their own cars and protect them against malware. Yesterday, EFF launched a legal campaign to fend off that threat.

Some background: Section 1201, the anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA, was created, supposedly, to help discourage people from breaking DRM restrictions in order to infringe, but in practice it has chilled a wide array of legitimate activities that require users to break DRM in order to do completely legitimate, non-infringing things that were often never even contemplated by device designers and rightsholders. But once every three years, the Librarian of Congress, working with the Copyright Office, hears requests from the many members of the public whose speech and other rights are chilled by the law and considers whether to grant exemptions.

Yesterday, EFF and a wide range of public interest groups filed a host of requests asking the Librarian to do his part to mitigate the harms caused by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The exemption requests, which are collected here include things like jailbreaking, ripping for remix (more on these two later this week), phone unlocking, and ebook accessibility for the print disabled. These are now familiar examples of DMCA overreach.

New this cycle, however, are our requests to allow vehicle owners to repair, study, and tinker with their own vehicles. Modern cars contain dozens of computers called electronic control units (ECUs), and the code on those ECUs is potentially covered by copyright. But many repairs require access to that code, as does research into vehicle safety. When auto manufacturers deploy technology to lock people out of the code controlling their own cars, that can transform an act of repair or research into a violation of the DMCA. The result is that only persons authorized by the manufacturer can effectively perform repairs, and independent audits of car safety and security take place under a legal cloud, if at all.

That work is important. Errors in ECU code can cause braking systems to malfunction, and security researchers have exposed vulnerabilities that would allow attackers to hijack vehicle functions. When this research takes place in public, it makes it much more likely that manufacturers will act to fix those problems.

Without an exemption, we could also lose out on the insights and inventions of the millions of Americans who enjoy tinkering with and improving their cars. Some car modders have experimented and found that modifications to the code in vehicle ECUs can increase fuel efficiency. Others have implemented new vehicle functions using free space in the ECUs' memory. As vehicle-to-vehicle communications become more revealing, user modification may also be necessary to counteract pervasive digital tracking of vehicle movements that is even more revealing than the current use of automatic license plate readers.

Not all ECU code is copyrightable, and not all ECUs are locked down in a way that triggers DMCA liability, but people shouldn't have to hire a copyright lawyer before repairing their cars. We requested vehicle exemptions to give people the peace of mind to learn about and repair the cars upon which they rely, and we hope the Copyright Office agrees that copyright law has no place getting in the way.

EFF thanks the NYU Technology Law Clinic and Marcia Hofmann for their valuable assistance in preparing this cycle’s exemption requests for vehicle software.

 


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