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Hey, You Can Hack Your Car Without Violating Copyright Law (For A Little While)

In my talk last week at Wikimedia, one of the examples I gave of “copyright creep” where copyright law is being shoved into areas where it obviously doesn’t belong was that time when John Deere and GM argued that you didn’t really own parts of the vehicles you bought from them, because of copyright. The underlying issue was that these companies didn’t want the Librarian of Congress to exempt hacking cars and tractors from section 1201 of the DMCA. 1201 is the anti-circumvention provision that says that getting around technological protection measures (even if not for the purpose of infringing on copyright) is still infringement. Ridiculously, even the EPA sided with these companies arguing that hacking cars could override environmental protections. However, as we pointed out at the time, there are other laws to handle that kind of thing. Don’t abuse copyright for that purpose.

When the exemptions came out from the Librarian of Congress, we noted that the whole thing was a hot mess, in which it sort of granted the exemption on vehicle hacking… but with a bunch of weird limitations and caveats. One of those was a bizarre delay of 12 months:

Computer programs that are contained in and control the functioning of a motorized land vehicle such as a personal automobile, commercial motor vehicle or mechanized agricultural vehicle, except for computer programs primarily designed for the control of telematics or entertainment systems for such vehicle, when circumvention is a necessary step undertaken by the authorized owner of the vehicle to allow the diagnosis, repair or lawful modification of a vehicle function; and where such circumvention does not constitute a violation of applicable law, including without limitation regulations promulgated by the Department of Transportation or the Environmental Protection Agency; and provided, however, that such circumvention is initiated no earlier than 12 months after the effective date of this regulation.

It was never entirely clear why there was such a delay, but it was there. And last week the delay was finally over. Twelve months had passed, and you can now hack parts of your car without violating copyright law. But, of course, this exemption only lasts two more years and then everyone has to go through the whole stupid process again. There are also odd things like that you can only do this kind of hacking on your own vehicles, and you can’t hire someone to do it for you (again, this makes no sense). There is an effort underway to make the exemption permanent, but who knows how that will go. And, of course, as some have noted, those hacking their cars may still run into some legal issues — such as potentially violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), though that would require quite a strained reading of the law.

In the short term, the fact that you won’t be dinged for copyright infringement for merely tinkering with your car is a good thing.

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