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Automakers Turn Mechanics Into Criminals

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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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.

Nobody has ever been prosecuted, but the threat still looms -- at least until next month, when the U.S. Copyright Office will decide whether to roll back the vehicle software protections via a legal exemption to current copyright law. The stakes go well beyond whether a home mechanic should be able to crack the encryption on his Camry.

The restrictions on vehicle software date back to 1998, when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA] was passed into law. Designed to protect intellectual property in a digital age, it included provisions that criminalized any circumvention of digital locks and other rights management tools that prevent copying of intellectual property.

However well-intentioned, the law put a significant dent in consumer rights. In the mid-2000s, for instance, some U.S. mobile phone companies began claiming that customers who unlocked their phones to use them on competing networks were violating copyrights. In 2012, the Librarian of Congress, the statutory authority in the matter, tacitly agreed by refusing to grant an exemption for cell phone unlocking under DMCA. For two years, until Congress intervened, unlocking your phone was arguably a crime (though one that was never prosecuted), akin to making and distributing digital copies of the Beatles catalogue.

A similar situation is now at play with vehicles, including cars, trucks and farm equipment. Vehicle manufacturers, including John Deere and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (an advocacy group representing 77 percent of all car and light truck sales in the U.S.) have recently launched an aggressive lobbying and public relations defense of their ownership rights over the software in your car.

Even before the campaign began, this view of property rights was already having far-reaching economic effects. Consider what's happening on American farms. For years, tractor manufacturers have been refusing to provide independent farmers with the diagnostic tools and repair codes necessary to access software on their most recent vehicle models. That's produced what Wired magazine recently called a “thriving grey-market” among farmers for high-tech diagnostic equipment and tools. It has also sparked rising prices for older tractor models. According to an August 2014 report on AgWeb, a farming news site, farmers increasingly prefer "older simpler machines that don't require a computer to fix."

Of course, it’s not just farmers who are looking to “jailbreak” their vehicles. Plenty of hobbyists are at it, too. For example, in 2014, Tesla caught an American owner of a Tesla Model S modifying the car’s 17-inch screen so that it could operate the Firefox web browser. And a quick search of online auto repair message boards reveals that modern gearheads are pursuing vehicle modifications far more ambitious than Firefox installs.

Car manufacturers claim that their primary concern is protecting the well-being of consumers -- by tampering with vehicle software, they say, home mechanics could circumvent safety and environmental regulations. But they neglect to mention that a poorly done brake job or tune up has always posed the same threat. And there's reason to believe that manufacturers are mostly interested in preserving and expanding their lucrative authorized service businesses (often run through authorized dealerships). That’s an unfair and expensive constraint on consumer choice.

The Copyright Office should push back by approving its proposed DMCA exemption for vehicle repair. But, as Senator Ron Wyden has noted, vehicles aren’t the only products that are unfairly affected by DMCA provisions. Wyden has introduced sensible legislation -- the Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation Act -- designed to streamline the process of granting additional exemptions, while expanding fair use of copyrights.

The ideal would be to have a recognized "right to repair," whereby individuals would be guaranteed access to the same tools, software, and parts that manufacturers currently keep to themselves and their authorized service centers. At the moment, Minnesota's legislature is considering the nation’s first "Fair Repair" bill that would establish such a right. If other states followed that lead, the grand American tradition of repairing one’s own stuff could continue uninterrupted in the digital age.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net