DMCA Ruling: OK To Mod Code In Cars, Jailbreak Smartphones - InformationWeek

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DMCA Ruling: OK To Mod Code In Cars, Jailbreak Smartphones

Reviewing and modifying automotive software will be lawful in 12 months, thanks to a copyright law exemption.

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Every three years, the US Copyright Office holds a rulemaking proceeding to limit the excessive scope of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's Section 1201, which bans the circumvention of digital access controls.

Access controls ostensibly serve to prevent unlawful copying, but they can also conceal deceit, like the software used by Volkswagen to manipulate diesel-engine smog tests.

This last may explain why the Librarian of Congress David S. Mao, against the wishes of automakers, has adopted a DMCA exemption that will allow the inspection and lawful modification of software governing the operation of vehicles.

(Image: skeeze via Pixabay)

(Image: skeeze via Pixabay)

In an email, Kit Walsh, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbied for the automotive software exemption among others, said he wasn't sure whether the Volkswagen scandal directly influenced the rulemaking, since the public comment period had concluded, and a draft recommendation had presumably been developed by the time the news broke.

"That said, the exemption permitting a vehicle owner to circumvent for purposes of 'diagnosis' would encompass a researcher who wanted to examine the code in an emissions system that was over-polluting in order to determine what was causing it, and this will help independent researchers who are analyzing emissions control units in the future (once the exemption comes into force)," Walsh observed.

The automotive software exemption takes effect in 12 months, to give the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency time to consider how the exemption might affect regulations enforced by those agencies.

The Librarian of Congress also adopted other DMCA exemptions, including:

  • the right to modify video games abandoned by their publisher
  • the right to jailbreak smartphones (now extended to tablets and smartwatches)
  • the right to access and remix videos locked away in protected formats like DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and streaming services
  • the right to unlock smartphones from a specific carrier's network

This last exemption had been enacted before, but was limited in the 2012 rulemaking to older-model mobile phones. That prompted a petition to restore the more comprehensive exemption and a bill, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which President Obama signed into law a year ago. Though the law did not make the exemption permanent, the Librarian of Congress in this year's rulemaking proceedings cited Congressional intervention as a reason to renew the exemption for unlocking mobile phones.

[It's been a week of intense rulemaking. Read: Net Neutrality Vote: EU Will Allow Data Discrimination.]

EFF legal director Corynne McSherry in a statement said it is absurd that this laborious process needs to be repeated every three years. "Technologists, artists, and fans should not have to get permission from the government -- and rely on the contradictory and often nonsensical rulings -- before investigating whether their car is lying to them or using their phone however they want," she said.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
10/30/2015 | 9:40:19 AM
Re: What about the warrenty?
I imagine the legal right to be able to crack the case of your cell phone and muck around or fiddle with your car's software is completely separate for the warranty, which probably has limits to what it will cover like anything other than default factory settings. I'm intersted to see what comes of this. Especially in the realm of modifying defunct video games.
User Rank: Strategist
10/29/2015 | 2:07:58 PM
Re: What about the warrenty?
In most cases, consumer warranties for cars and trucks permit self-service or third-party service (that was the subject of a much earlier lawsuit which ended up much the same way, with the government stepping in), as long as one uses parts/techniques specified by the manufacturer (e.g., you have to use Mopar parts in Chrysler vehicles or a certified equivalent).

I haven't bought a car since 2012 so I don't know what the new warranties say as far as "reverse-engineering code in the on-board systems". However, I suspect that, unless there's a specific clause in your warranty concerning "re-flashing" on-board systems (and there are - to cover so-called "reprogramming" the ROMs which control engine/transmission/emission behavior), you're probably in the clear.

User Rank: Ninja
10/29/2015 | 1:16:51 AM
What about the warrenty?
If somebody messes around with vehicle software and that causes the car to be damaged, is the owner on his/her own as far as warrenty protection?
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