So You Think You OWN That Car You Bought?

Let me apologize at the beginning – this post is going to get a little strange.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA was passed by Congress mostly at the request of the movie and music industries who pay lobbyists a lot of money to strong arm Congress-people.  The DMCA has several provisions, but one of the most well known ones is the anti-circumvention provision.  The idea was to make it illegal to remove copy protection that companies put in place to protect their intellectual property, whether or not you plan to do anything illegal with it or not.  For example, if you buy a DVD and you want to play it on your tablet, you need to make a copy in a form that can be played on the tablet.  Doing that was illegal – even though many people do it, because in order to do that, you have to break the encryption on the DVD.

You bought the DVD – at least you own the little round piece of plastic, but the movie industry wants you to understand that you didn’t buy the movie – just the piece of plastic.  Instead, what you got along with the plastic disk, is a license to play what the movie industry put on the disk, but only in a way that the movie industry finds acceptable to them.  This really offends a lot of people.

The DMCA has some strange twists and turns, as is often the case with laws, and one of those is section 1201.  Every three years, the Librarian Of Congress, who is considered by many as one of the most powerful but at the same time obscure people in the country, gets to decide who gets a free pass to ignore the DMCA.  If no one asks the Librarian for a get out of jail free card and the Librarian doesn’t sign it, then you don’t get to ignore the DMCA and the free pass expires after three years anyway.

Probably the best known exemption is to jail break the iPhone.  First approved in 2010, this was renewed in 2012 and again this year.  And, to prove that they are not narrow minded, you can now legally jailbreak your iPad – something you could not do last year.  Needless to say, Apple was not happy when this was first approved.

And, apparently, it is now also legal to copy that DVD so that you can play it on your iPhone.

This, of course, also applies to Android devices.  They are not picking on Apple.

The one which is more important – and the subject of this post – is that you can now jail break your car.  This exemption is pretty narrow.  Kind of like the DVD movies before them, Deere and GM argued that you don’t really own your car.  You can own the sheet metal, the frame and the tires and stuff – but that software – you don’t own it.  The nice people at Deere and GM just let you use it.  That position, taken to extreme, would say that you can resell the car, but you have to delete the software first.  Of course, if you could do and did do that your car wouldn’t even unlock the door.  While you might say that is far fetched, that is exactly what the network equipment vendor Cisco does.  You cannot legally resell a Cisco router, because the license does not allow you to transfer the software.  Actually, you can sell it, minus the software, but then the new owner has to buy his own copy of the software.  Car companies have not gone there – yet.

You may remember that 60 Minutes segment from this summer where researchers hacked into a Jeep Cherokee and took over brakes and steering from miles away.  That was done by hacking into the infotainment system (fancy term for car radio) by way of the telematics system (fancy term for car cell phone).

Curiously, the exemption for hacking your car, which only lasts for the next three years unless renewed, DOES NOT allow you to hack either the infotainment system or the telematics system – the source of the Jeep hack.

It also only allows YOU to hack your car, not, for example, your mechanic, and it does not make tools that help you hack your car legal – those are still illegal.  And, for some bizarre reason which has no apparent basis in law, the Librarian said that you have to wait a year – until October 2016 – to legally hack your car.

The EFF and others are continuing to petition the Librarian of Congress to grant expanded exemptions, so this might change, but right now, them’s the rules.

Strange, huh?  Welcome to section 1201.


See the Wikipedia article on DMCA here.

Listen to a discussion of the subject on This Week In Law episode 327; it starts at around the 39 minute mark.  You can find it here.

Other information came from Boing Boing, Ars Technica and The Copyright Office,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *