US Congress Mulls Law to Circumvent DMCA for Cars

Soft and hardware makers, closed ones that is, are extremely secretive over their code and hardware. If there’s a flaw, bug, or error, you are at their mercy to fix their code or issue a recall or something; you can’t fix it yourself. In fact, fixing your own hardware will most certainly void warranty. Since we haven’t had a decent car analogy on OSNews in a while, US Congress handed us one on a silver platter.

Cars are becoming ever more complex creatures (well, non-US ones at least, ba-dum-tish): they are stuffed with chips and software to control everything from low-level aspects like fuel-air mixture all the way up to high-level things like automatic windscreen wipers. As a result of this electronification and computerisation of cars, they have become increasingly more difficult to service.

Most new cars require specialised hard and software in order to diagnose and repair them, which means that it becomes ever more difficult for independent or smaller car shops to take care of their customers’ cars. US Congress is now contemplating a bill (the Right-to-Repair Act 2009) that would force car makers who operate in the US market to provide equal and open access to their tools, equipment, and spare parts. In addition, a wealth of information must be opened up: safety and service bulletins, data needed to diagnose, repair, or replace existing equipment, and so on.

Trade secrets, however, are exempt from this rule. To prevent car makers form abusing this exemption, the bill sates that all information made available to authorised service providers can automatically no longer be regarded as trade secrets. This newly proposed bill is generating support across the US political spectrum (heck, both Libertarian Bob Barr and Green/independent Ralph Nader support it).

I guess you can all see the analogy coming up here (if you don’t, have another coffee): this sounds an awful lot like the stifling effect the DMCA has on the hard and software industry, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Fred von Lohmann notes. The problems the car industry has here stem directly from the use of computers, he argues, which comes with lock-out codes and closed-source diagnostic tools, forcing car owners to have their cars services at certain locations only. Since the computers and software used in cars fall under the DMCA, lock-out mechanisms may not be circumvented.

However, the effect of the DMCA stretches far beyond just computers, Lohmann explains.

The problem that this law attempts to fix is the direct result of the use of computers in cars, accompanied by proprietary diagnostic tools and “lock-out codes.” Sound familiar? It should, as it’s the very sort of thing that can also make it difficult to repair computer systems, sell replacement garage door openers, and refill printer toner cartridges. One underlying legal problem here is the DMCA, which prohibits bypassing or circumventing “technological protection measures”.

So basically, what is going on here is that first the US comes up with the hated DMCA, only then to have to come up with a law to circumvent that same DMCA when it comes to cars. As Lohmann notes, “thanks to the DMCA, we need a Right-To-Repair Act not just for cars, but increasingly for all the things we own.”

Luckily for car owners and small car shops, the American automotive industry isn’t in a position to complain or lobby against this proposed bill, as they are dependent on the US government right now. Sadly, the computer industry is still going strong, so we’ll still have to deal with companies invoking the DMCA to impose post-sale restrictions or lock you in to their hard and software.


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