A fierce battle is now being waged over the intellectual property under the hood of your late model car. According to many manufacturers, the coding on a vehicle’s Engine Control Unit(ECU) and other electronic architecture, is their intellectual property which cannot/should not be modified in any way, absent the approval of the manufacturer.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998(DMCA,) which serves as the cornerstone of US copyright law is now being used by automakers to wage war on those who reprogram the ECU of a vehicle to alter the performance of their engines. Though the legal language is complicated, tinkering with your car’s ECU may constitute a copyright violation, as you rely on their intellectual property to produce your desired effect.
A lawsuit is currently underway in which Ford is suing a New York diagnostics equipment manufacturer named Autel for “unlawfully relaying trade secrets.” Ford accuses Autel of integrating Ford’s programming into their diagnostic tools.
However, proponents on the other side are beginning to fight back. The Electronic freedom Foundation(EFF,) a body which seeks to advance the rights of individuals with regard to copyright law, has filed numerous requests with the US Copyright Office for exemptions in the law. The office considers such requests every three years, and it is due to rule on a number of them soon.
Jennifer Dukarski, a trademark and patent attorney, commented in support of consumers, saying,
“With a limited scope of protection. They’re saying, ‘OK, if I can’t protect this via patent, how am I going to lock everything down? What’s my next-best tool?’ And I think using copyright law, it is kind of the only protection outside the idea of trade secrets. The problem is you’re in a situation with a host of competing interests, and those are how much freedom will you let car owners have? What’s the relationship with the information in this car you bought?”
General Motors commented that it is necessary to render modifications to a vehicle’s engine program unallowable, by any means necessary, be they legal or technological. They cite concerns with safety. They also remarked that certain proprietary in-car infotainment and telemetrics systems may be at risk for intellectual property infringement. The company’s’ telemetric systems, which control many real-time safety and infotainment systems, may not remain in cars if laws do not illegalize their alteration.
GM recently released comment as to what would happen if their electronic architectures were not protected,
“Absent this protection, vehicle manufacturers, including GM, may be forced to consider reducing offerings or withdrawing these systems from the market.”
John Deere decided to enter the debate as well, commenting that personalization should be,
“Against public policy because individual vehicle owners do not have the technological resources to provide safe, reliable and lawful software for repair, diagnosis or some dubious ‘aftermarket personalization, modification or other improvement’ that is not directed toward repair or diagnosis of the vehicle.”
The debate over whether or not electronic architecture in cars will be protected is one that likely will not go away nay time soon. Don’t expect the battle to stop with targeting businesses or corporations in the aftermarket either; any future public policy changes regarding this could affect the home tuner merely looking to pick up a few extra horsepower.