The U.S. Copyright Office was asked to permit automobile owners and others to access the computer code embedded in cars and other vehicles. In a recent decision, the Copyright Office determined that such access was beneficial and should be permitted. As a result, after a twelve month waiting period, car owners, repair personnel, and others will be permitted to access computer code embedded in vehicles in order to conduct diagnosis, modification, and repair of those vehicles. This ruling seems reasonable and should serve as a model for additional access to embedded compute code in other contexts.
Manufacturers of cars, trucks, and other vehicles (farm equipment, for example) have traditionally taken the position that all computer code they embed in the vehicles they make is their property, protected by copyright law. By aggressively enforcing that claim, the manufacturers prohibited all parties, including the owners of the vehicles and repair personnel, from accessing the embedded code. For today’s vehicles, access to embedded computer code is essential to conduct effective maintenance, service, and modifications for those vehicles.
This aggressive enforcement of copyright claims caused disruption in the maintenance of the vehicles involved. Copyright law was used to prevent owners of vehicles from asserting full ownership rights (they owned the vehicles but were denied access to the critical software that controlled the operation of the vehicles). The copyright claims of the manufacturers also had an adverse impact on repair personnel. Parties not affiliated with the manufacturers were unable to repair or maintain the vehicles as they were denied essential access to the embedded computer code.
A variety of parties, including vehicle owners and repair personnel, asked the Copyright Office to permit them to access the embedded vehicle code. Specifically, they asked that the Copyright Office exempt embedded vehicle code from the access restrictions imposed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The Copyright Office oversees DMCA exemptions, and it has granted such exemptions to permit more open access to computer code and other material protected by copyright in diverse contexts.
The decision by the Copyright Office to establish a DMCA exemption for embedded vehicle computer code is appropriate. Such access is essential if owners are to exercise full rights of ownership for their vehicles. Access to the embedded code is also necessary to ensure that there is healthy competition in the market for vehicle maintenance service and repairs.
Among arguments raised by manufacturers and others against access to the embedded code was concern that such access could pose a security risk by facilitating malicious hacker access to the vehicle code. Although security risks are present, the Copyright Office seems to have placed those concerns in an appropriate context.
Open access to the embedded code can contribute to security by making the characteristics and operations of the code more transparent, and thus subject to greater public scrutiny and understanding. The recent revelations involving Volkswagen and apparently other automakers and abuse of embedded emission control software suggest that denial of public access to embedded code may actually pose a greater risk to consumers than does open access of the sort contemplated by the Copyright Office.
The Copyright Office has acted properly by granting a DMCA exemption to embedded vehicle software. The public interest would be best served if the Copyright Office uses this action as a model and grants similar exemptions for a wide range of embedded computer code.