Automakers Facing Backlash Over Car Copyright Controversy

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

Automakers had to know that a backlash was coming, but when they attempted to argue that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act should apply to cars, they might not have known how big the backlash would be. The Internet exploded with articles decrying the idea that car owners might not entirely own their cars and declaring it a manufacturer-led war against tuners, independent repair shops, and car enthusiasts.

There’s also been a small counter-reaction of some people claiming that everyone is over-reacting and that the majority of stories are exaggerating the issue. It’s not just enthusiasts and online outlets that take issue with this proposal though. Several large organizations object as well.

AAA, for example, submitted a comment in support of exempting vehicle software from the DMCA. The comment claims that the “suggestion that the right to repair, customize or upgrade a vehicle should not be afforded to a vehicle owner is deeply troubling and directly contrary to how AAA’s 55 million members view their car.”

It then goes on to say:

“The possibilities facilitated by car technology should represent an opportunity for motorists to continue to enjoy the rights they have long been accustomed to and exert even more control and customization over their cars. Disturbingly, opponents of this exempted class see these increased capabilities as an opportunity to prevent vehicle owners from making personal choices about their own cars — proposing to make unlawful a “grease monkey” tinkering under the hood on a Saturday afternoon. Such a change would overturn long-standing, fundamental expectations of vehicle ownership, and lock consumers into closed systems where options and competition are limited or eliminated.”

The Special Equipment Market Association, Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, and Consumer Electronics Association also submitted comments in support of exempting auto software from the DMCA.

While manufacturers have raised concerns that allowing people to modify the computers in their cars could allow them to make dangerous modifications to their cars, such changes are already illegal. The University of Southern California’s Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic weighed in as well, concluding that:

“Respondents have not substantiated or supported their arguments that the exemption would result in risks to public safety and security, cause more individuals to be injured by modified cars, or have deleterious effects on environmental health … The only concrete examples of the potential for dangerous or harmful modifications that Respondents have provided are modifications that are already illegal for reasons unrelated to copyright law.”

Interestingly, one of the dangerous modifications listed as a possibility is disabling a car’s brakes, an idea so outlandish, it can only mean someone on the manufacturer’s legal team took the blog post “I’m an Anti-Braker” seriously and not as the pro-vaccination satire that it actually is.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

While much of the backlash has been focused on consumer vehicles, it’s also worth noting that agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere is deeply invested in blocking this exemption as well. John Deere also makes one of the boldest claims of any manufacturer, claiming that “in the absence of an express written license in conjunction with the purchase of the vehicle, the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

John Deere isn’t simply claiming that the owner receives a license to operate the software included with the purchase of the vehicle. It’s claiming a vehicle’s buyer is not buying the vehicle itself, but rather a license to use the vehicle for life. If that claim is taken to its logical conclusion, John Deere believes that vehicle manufacturers still own all of the vehicles they produce, and owners are actually just leasing them for life.

While such an idea is completely absurd, it does raise an interesting question. After all, if car owners don’t actually own their vehicles and are instead holding an implied lease, does that not establish a relationship very similar to the one between tenants and their landlords? If that’s the case, then the manufacturer should be the one responsible for each vehicle’s maintenance and repairs.

Obviously, if a speeding driver drove his Volkswagen GTI into a tree, that would be an issue for the driver and his insurance. What about oil changes, new tires, and suspension alignments? If the owner doesn’t actually own his car, then the manufacturer should pay for those. What about when the oil pump or the timing chain needs replacing? If a landlord is on the hook for replacing his tenant’s dishwasher when it wears out, you’d think the manufacturer would be on the hook for replacing timing belts if the ‘owner’ doesn’t actually own the car.

If that’s the case, then who cares about a brand’s reliability? Instead of buying Hondas and Toyotas, people should be buying cars like this sub-$20,000 Range Rover Supercharged or this sub-$25,000 Maserati Spyder. Sure, maintenance and repairs would be a nightmare, but that would be for the true owners to worry about. The people licensing those cars can enjoy driving them risk-free.

The idea of car manufacturers having to provide a free, lifetime, bumper-to-bumper warranty is incredibly unlikely to happen, but then again, the idea that car owners don’t own their cars and aren’t free to modify them as they see fit is just as ridiculous.

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