Tuesday, November 1, 2016

For the Next Two Years Auto Manufacturers Can't Have You Arrested...

...for trying to repair or modify the software on your own car.

From IEEE Spectrum:

It's Now (Temporarily) Legal to Hack Your Own Car
You may own your car, but you don't own the software that makes it work: that still belongs to your car's manufacturer. You're allowed to use the software, but in the past, trying to alter it in any way (including fixing it by yourself when it breaks or patching security holes) was a form of copyright infringement. iFixit, Repair.org, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and many others think this ridiculous, and they've been lobbying the government to try to change things.

A year ago, the U.S. Copyright Office agreed that people should be able to modify the software that runs cars that they own, and as of last Friday, that ruling came into effect. It's only good for two years, though, so get hacking.

The legal and technical distinction between physical ownership and digital ownership is perhaps most familiar in the context of DVD movies. You can go to the store and buy a DVD, and when you do, you own that DVD. You don't, however, own the movie that comes on it: instead, it's more like you own limited rights to watch the movie, which is a very different thing. If the DVD is protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) says that you are not allowed to circumvent that software, even if you're just trying to watch the movie on a different device, change the region restriction so that you can watch it in a different country, or do any number of other things that it really seems like you should be able to do with a piece of media that you paid twenty bucks for.

Cars work in a similar way. You own the car as a physical object, but you only have limited rights to the software that controls it, because the car's manufacturer holds the copyright on that software. This prevents you from making changes to the software, even if those changes are to fix problems or counter obsolescence, as well as preventing you from investigating the security of the software, which can have very serious and direct consequences for you as the owner and driver. It's also worth pointing out that (especially in older vehicles like the 1995 Volvo 940 Turbo belonging to a certain anonymous journalist) relatively simple computerized parts can cost a ridiculous amount of money to replace, because there is no legal alternative besides buying a new one from the manufacturer, who hasn't made them in 20 years and would much rather you just bought an entirely new car anyway.

The fundamental point is this, as The Repair Association and iFixit point out in their most recent filing with the United States Copyright Office: "it should not require extensive litigation to make clear that purchasing a product gives you basic property rights to do things like repair and modify the thing you’ve bought."...MORE
John Deere Tells Patent Office That Purchasers Don't Actually Own the Machine They Paid For (DE)
"John Deere Clarifies: It's Trying To Abuse Copyright Law To Stop You From Owning Your Own Tractor... Because It Cares About You" (DE)

One of the heroes of this stuff was Thai native and U.S. student Supap Kirtsaeng who won his case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., wherein he argued he should be able to re-sell textbooks he had lawfully purchased. The Supreme Court upheld the First Sale Doctrine that "you bought it, you own it".