Grease Monkeys: EFF Wants You to fight DMCA

The EFF is looking for stories about car owners being prevented from repairing their vehicles by copy protection features put in place by automakers.
The EFF is looking for stories about car owners being prevented from repairing their vehicles by copy protection features put in place by automakers.

In-brief: the Electronic Frontier Foundation is looking for stories of car hackers who have been thwarted by copyright protection features in vehicle software or hardware. The group says the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is being misapplied to prevent owners from repairing their vehicles. 

Working on your car is a long and proud tradition in the United States. As important a symbol of independence as automobiles are, the right of every owner to pop the hood and chew up a few knuckles getting their car run the way they want is – well – almost sacrosanct.

But all that may be endangered, as automobiles make the transition to digital objects: their workings controlled more by software than any mechanical device. In a blog post on Friday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that automobile manufacturers are using an unexpected tool to keep car owners from tinkering with the software and hardware that run vehicles: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The EFF is soliciting examples of projects in which car owners wanted to meaningfully repair or modify the software running their automobile but were blocked by copyright enforcement features.

If you would have engaged in a vehicle-related project but didn’t because of the legal risk posed by the DMCA, or if you or your mechanic had to deal with obstacles in getting access to diagnostic information, then we want to hear from you—and the Copyright Office should hear from you, too.

The EFF is looking for such stories to counter efforts by automakers to paint protections for car hackers and tinkerers as unnecessary.

At issue is what’s often referred to as the “freedom to tinker.” Automakers charge that owners to inspect and modify the code that runs their vehicles will be violating copyright laws and, not incidentally, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.

EFF sees other motives, including automakers’ desire to obscure faults or shortcomings in their software and to build a ‘walled garden’ in which only sanctioned applications from the automaker or its partners can run on their vehicles.

“The parade of horribles makes it clear that it is an extraordinary stretch to apply the DMCA to the code that runs vehicles. The vast majority of manufacturers’ concerns have absolutely nothing to do with copyright law. And, as the automakers repeatedly point out, vehicles are subject to regulation by other government agencies with subject matter expertise, which issue rules about what vehicles are and are not lawful to operate on public roadways,” EFF writes.

EFF has long argued that the DMCA’s anti-circumvention language is being abused by automakers to outlaw a wide range of activities that have long been assumed to be the right of car owners. The DMCA “essentially blundered into this space and called all tinkering and code inspection into question, even acts that are otherwise lawful like repairing your car, making it work better at high altitude, inspecting the code to find security and safety issues, or even souping it up for use in races on a private course,” EFF said.

In November, the group wrote to the Librarian of Congress to create exemptions for a wide range of lawful circumvention activities like “jailbreaking” (disabling content protections). Included in those were exemptions to allow vehicle owners to repair, study, and tinker with their own vehicles.

“Modern cars contain dozens of computers called electronic control units (ECUs), and the code on those ECUs is potentially covered by copyright. But many repairs require access to that code, as does research into vehicle safety,”  the group said.

There is already evidence that copyright restrictions on vehicle software are having an impact. Wired in February wrote about the struggles of farmers who struggle with software-induced shutdowns with expensive equipment that they are unable to resolve themselves. Anti-tamper features built into hardware and software by manufacturers like John Deere prevent them from doing so.

[Read more Security Ledger coverage of connected vehicles here.]


“When auto manufacturers deploy technology to lock people out of the code controlling their own cars, that can transform an act of repair or research into a violation of the DMCA. The result is that only persons authorized by the manufacturer can effectively perform repairs, and independent audits of car safety and security take place under a legal cloud, if at all.”

Removing barriers to tinkering will, in contrast, shine the light of day on the workings of the software that runs vehicles and create a kind of ‘crowd sourced’ intelligence about how to best modify and maintain those vehicles. And, as vehicle-to-vehicle communications become more revealing, EFF argues that user modification may also be necessary to counteract “pervasive digital tracking of vehicle movements.”

The EFF is circulating an online petition calling on the Librarian of Congress and Copyright Office to grant DMCA exceptions for tinkering.

No federal “right to repair” law exists. However, some state-level laws do provide legal protection for consumers. Massachusetts passed a “right to repair” law in 2013. That law ensures that motor vehicle owners and independent repairers have complete repair information and diagnostic tools necessary to successfully repair a motor vehicle.

And, starting in 2018, automakers will be required to provide motor vehicle owners or their designated independent repair facility access to complete repair information through a universal interface that can be used with a computer to “extract all repair information and diagnostic codes from any manufacturer make or model, thereby eliminating the need for the purchase of expensive manufacturers’ diagnostic scanning tools.”

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