Washington, D.C. - The Librarian of Congress has granted security researchers and others the right to inspect and modify the software in their cars and other vehicles, despite protests from vehicle manufacturers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed the request for software access as part of the complex, triennial rulemaking process that determines exemptions from Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Because Section 1201 prohibits unlocking “access controls” on the software, car companies have been able to threaten legal action against anyone who needs to get around those restrictions, no matter how legitimate the reason. While the copyright office removed this legal cloud from much car software research, it also delayed implementation of the exemption for one year.

“This ‘access control’ rule is supposed to protect against unlawful copying,” said EFF Staff Attorney Kit Walsh. “But as we’ve seen in the recent Volkswagen scandal—where VW was caught manipulating smog tests—it can be used instead to hide wrongdoing hidden in computer code. We are pleased that analysts will now be able to examine the software in the cars we drive without facing legal threats from car manufacturers, and that the Librarian has acted to promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket and protect the long tradition of vehicle owners tinkering with their cars and tractors. The year-long delay in implementing the exemptions, though, is disappointing and unjustified. The VW smog tests and a long run of security vulnerabilities have shown researchers and drivers need the exemptions now.”

EFF also won an exemption for users who want to play video games after the publisher cuts off support. For example, some players may need to modify an old video game so it doesn’t perform a check with an authentication server that has since been shut down. The Librarian also granted EFF’s petition to renew a previous exemption to jailbreak smartphones, and extended that to other mobile devices, including tablets and smartwatches. This clarifies the law around jailbreaking, making clear that users are allowed to run operating systems and applications from any source, not just those approved by the manufacturer. EFF also won the renewal and partial expansion of the exemptions for remix videos that use excerpts from DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, or downloading services.

 “We’re pleased that the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office have expanded these legal protections to users of newer products like tablets, wearable computers, and Blu-Ray discs,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Mitch Stoltz.

Today’s ruling is a victory for users, artists, and researchers.  However, the laborious process required to remove a legal cloud over clear fair uses highlights the need for fundamental reforms.

“It’s absurd that we have to spend so much time, every three years, filing and defending these petitions to the copyright office. Technologists, artists, and fans should not have to get permission from the government—and rely on the contradictory and often nonsensical rulings—before investigating whether their car is lying to them or using their phone however they want,” said EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry. “But despite this ridiculous system, we are glad for our victories here, and that basic rights to modify, research, and tinker have been protected.”

EFF's remix petition was drafted and co-submitted with the Organization for Transformative Works. EFF’s remaining petitions received invaluable assistance from the NYU Technology Law & Policy Clinic, attorney Marcia Hofmann, and former EFF intern Kendra Albert.

For the full ruling from the Library of Congress:

For more on the DMCA rulemaking:

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