Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Adam Minter

Automakers Turn Mechanics Into Criminals

Today's cars run on software, and manufacturers own the copyrights.
Grease monkeys, unite!

Grease monkeys, unite!

Photographer: DAVID EBENER/AFP/Getty Images

For as long as Americans have owned cars, they’ve exercised their right to soup them up. Want a bright red flame job on the doors? Buy the decals and stick them on. Covet a low-rider suspension that bounces your Cadillac DeVille up and down like Dr. Dre’s? Order a kit and spend the weekend installing it in your garage. Your creativity has always seemed limited only by your imagination and some basic tenets of road safety.

Car manufacturers, citing the finer points of copyright law, beg to differ. And, unless the law changes, they may be right. Hardly any cars on the road today could run without highly technical software that's often designed and, under current U.S. law, owned by automobile companies. So in the absence of explicit permission from a manufacturer to modify (or even see) that software's coding, there's a chance even basic repair jobs could be punishable by jail time and a six figure fine.