Copyright could kill garage tinkerers

Auto makers are learning that the software it produces (not the hardware) is the key to success in the digital age.

It was recently revealed that Auto Alliance – one of the industry’s main lobbying arms is trying to prevent owners from tinkering with their cars. By considering the car as being a “mobile computing device” under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1996 auto makers are contending that allowing consumers and third parties to repair/ alter the computational information systems of their cars is not only unsafe but also violates their copyright.

What auto makers are essentially saying is that they own the rights to the software and that they should control who does remedial work to your vehicle.

This regime will mean that manufacturers will authorise a few garages to repair their cars and owners will have no choice but to use their overpriced services. It is though that this has come about due to people owning their cars longer and therefore spending more money on repairs and therefore causes a fall in the sale of new cars.

Last September, Ford filed a lawsuit against Autel US Inc., a diagnostic-equipment manufacturer based in Huntington, New York. Ford alleged the company unlawfully copied trade secrets and accessed on-board computer systems that relay technical information on diagnostic codes and repair data. The EFF says consumers should have the right to have their cars fixed by independent mechanics but by doing so does this infringe the copyright of the manufacturer?

Controversially John Deere last week announced that they wish to control the second hand market for their tractors. They have stated that you never own their vehicles but you have “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

The company argues that allowing people to alter the software—even for the purpose of repair—would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.” The pièce de résistance in John Deere’s argument: permitting owners to root around in a tractor’s programming might lead to pirating music through a vehicle’s entertainment system.

John Deere has further stated that the drivers might own the frames and windows and trunks of their cars, but because everything is controlled by a computer chip they retain a claim on every car they sell.

This is an interesting development which may destroy the very idea of ownership in the 21st century. Although it is vehicle makers to start the debate, this situation can be applied to nearly all products that we can buy today, from our beloved iPads to everyday kitchen appliances.

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