Tim Shults
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Is It Possible Repairing or Modifying Cars Violates Copyright?

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Modifying Cars Violates Copyright yellow sports racing mechanic

You may want to reconsider working on your car next time you want to customize it
Photo: Mark Kortum via CC

We’ve all been warned modifying your car could void its warranty. Those of us who repair our own vehicle or enjoy altering it have had to accept that risk.

But the consequences may actually be worse than that. There may be legal ramifications.

A privacy group and nonprofit watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is now cautioning mechanics and home garage tinkerers that there’s a chance modifying cars violates copyright, which could put a stop to unauthorized work under the hood.

Related: Chevy had some of the best mods at the 2014 SEMA Show

Could the US Government Rule That Modifying Cars Violates Copyright?

The concern behind the EFF’s warning is that modifying code in the central computer running a vehicle’s systems without manufacturer approval could violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The law, enacted in 1996, protects intellectual property against modifications, such as homebrew alterations on video game consoles.

How is hacking into a phone or game console the same as working on a car? Electronics run on electronic control units (ECUs), which now pervade cars and run everything from the engine to the brakes and steering. Modifying ECUs is typically considered a violation of the DMCA.

Luckily, EFF isn’t discouraging the act of car customization, but in fact petitioning the US Copyright Office to exempt home mechanics and hobbyists from liability for engaging “in a decades-old tradition of mechanical curiosity and self-reliance.” The difference with “official” mods like SEMA is these garages partner with automakers to gain authorized access to the codes.

“The idea of ownership, in a way, is under threat when the law prevents you from altering a product in any way,” said EFF staff attorney Kit Walsh.

So far no automaker has taken such a situation to court, but with increased digitization of vehicles and even self-driving cars on the way, it could become a possibility–especially if manufacturers plan to sell software upgrades for vehicles. The ruling could control where car owners are allowed to go for repairs.

Currently, the industry is waiting on a ruling after the court considers exemptions, which is expected around mid-2015. In the meantime, our concept of car ownership is being changed: perhaps vehicles are becoming mobile computers operated by people who pay for the ability to use them.

Related: Car restoration can be a means of charity

Source: AutoBlog