Vehicle manufacturers like General Motors and John Deere are citing a particularly strange and onerous provision in copyright law to claim that you need permission to tinker with, repair, and innovate around your own car. According to them, you may own the parts, but you don’t own your copies of the car software that makes them work. For months, we have been working to fix that by calling on the Librarian of Congress to issue an exemption to this provision.

Now the car companies have taken notice. They’ve come out in force to insist that you don’t really own your car, and that you can only tinker with or even look at the code if you have their permission. Manufacturers were remarkably transparent about their real fears: potential competition from “unauthorized” people making cars more useful through aftermarket add-ons, and more competition in the repair market.

As far as repairs go, the manufacturers have been pointing to a voluntary deal they struck with a group of Right to Repair advocates [pdf] as the cure-all for the harms we’ve demonstrated. But the reality on the ground is quite different from the rosy picture painted by manufacturers, something that can likely be explained by the loopholes and limitations in the deal. It only applies to about half of the vehicles on the road today (most notably excluding older cars, as well as all trucks, motorcycles, and RVs), it only applies to certain diagnostic information and tools, and the available information is expensive enough that repair shops can’t afford to support as many vehicle makes as they used to, before auto repair became a copyright issue. And to get this deal, those Right to Repair advocates had to agree not to support any new state Right to Repair legislation.

On top of that, of course, the deal regarding repair information doesn’t provide the freedom to do research or modification of vehicle software that’s needed for aftermarket businesses, hobbyist groups like OpenGarages, and researchers who study the safety and security of automobiles.

The public gets it. We’ve been flooded with questions from individuals, mechanics, innovators, researchers, and trade associations about how they can help. There are two ways to help right now.

First, if you have knowledge or experiences relating to the proposed exemptions, you can help debunk the manufacturers’ arguments by commenting to the Copyright Office. The deadline is this Friday, May 1. Your comments will be especially meaningful if you fall into one or more of these categories:

  • individuals who bought a car and were never given any license telling them they didn’t own their copies of the software in it;
  • individuals who have ever had to access their own vehicle software to do a repair or diagnose a problem, or had an independent mechanic send them to the dealer because they didn’t have the equipment to do it themselves;
  • mechanics who have to subcontract out computer work to dealers because of limited access to necessary information and tools;
  • mechanics and individuals who can’t afford to purchase access to diagnostic and repair hardware, or can’t afford to support as many brands as they used to because of these costs;
  • aftermarket companies and hobbyists who rely on access to ECU software for products, learning, and customization;
  • individuals who would explore vehicle computer technology for hands-on education of their children or students, if not for restrictions imposed by manufacturers;
  • individuals who are concerned about the degree to which their vehicle collects information about them and would care about the right to reconfigure it to respect their privacy;
  • researchers and consumer watchdogs who study vehicle security or safety and are alarmed that a legal cloud hangs over this conduct when it relates to vehicle software.

Second, you can sign up to add your name to the petition we will submit along with our comments on Friday, May 1. Together we can show the Copyright Office that it must not let manufacturers lock drivers out of their own cars.


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