Cars Copyrightable Computers?

In regards to his cars, my dad has always been a tinkerer.  While I was growing up, he’d always be under the hood; making slight modifications to his cars to make them more personable and powerful.  This is a common practice among car enthusiasts, but this exercise may be deemed illegal in the near future.  Automobile manufacturers are pushing for their newer vehicles to be included under copyright protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and in July of this year, the Copyright Office will make its decision in regards to whether or not they deserve such protections.  In the past, automobiles were merely transportation devices used to get from point A to point B.  However, as cars are becoming more technologically advanced, automobile makers believe that their vehicles are more than just vehicles; they deem them “mobile computing devices”, thus, in their eyes, granting them certain rights under digital technology laws.  Now, they make a fair case to some extent as to why people should not be allowed to tinker with their car’s computer systems, but, as rightful owners of the technology after purchase, consumers believe that certain rights should be granted, which includes the ability to modify and work on their cars as they see fit.

First, in regards to the automobile’s manufacturer’s side of the spectrum.  With the upgraded dashboards and security features on today’s cars, they are correct in saying that their vehicles are more than just vehicles.  In the comment submitted on behalf of The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (“Auto Alliance”) to the Copyright Office, they state that automobiles “increasingly contain equipment that would commonly be considered computing devices.”  Nobody can argue against this.  In fact, in some ways, the fact that our cars are more than just cars nowadays is a strong embodiment of what makes them so much more desirable than their older editions.  According to Dan Hunter in his book Intellectual Property, part of the DMCA’s reason for existence is to “forbid direct circumvention of digital right management systems and related technological protection measures”.  Automobile manufacturers put security measures in place in order to stop common people from getting into their system.  In order to tinker with your vehicles, sometimes it may be needed to bypass these security measures.   If vehicles are in fact deemed mobile computers, these acts would be technically breaking the DMCA in the opinion of the manufacturer’s.  In the same comment to the Copyright Office as above, the Automobile Alliance cites safety as a concern in regards to tampering with the computer systems..  Specifically, they say “the decision to employ access controls to hinder unauthorized “tinkering” with these vital computer programs is necessary in order to protect the safety and security of drivers and passengers and to reduce the level of non-compliance with regulatory standards”.  There are strict rules and regulations that vehicles must follow in order to be deemed safe enough for the road, and unauthorized tinkering with the system may cause the automobile to fall out of regulations and into unsafe zones.

Now for the other side of the argument. wrote an article in response to this situation, and a quote stuck out to me from the piece of writing: “So, Old MacDonald has a tractor, but he owns a massive barn ornament, because the manufacturer holds the rights to the programming that makes it run.”  Now, before I go on, I will acknowledge that this article shows a bias toward the consumer’s outlook on this topic and needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however it makes a fair point.  American economy is heavily capitalistic and when a consumer goes to a car dealership to buy a John Deere tractor or a Toyota Camry, they aren’t there to buy the license to use the car; they’re there to become an owner of the car.  Thus, the average consumer feels that they should be able to modify their car however they wish after purchasing the vehicle.  In the eyes of the possessor, tinkering shouldn’t be of any concern to the previous owner once possession changes hands.  Also, in a direct comment to the Copyright Office, General Motors argues that locking people out helps foster and promote innovation, which doesn’t make much sense.  As puts it, “that’s like saying locking up books will inspire kids to be innovative writers, because they won’t be tempted to copy passages from a Hemingway novel”.  Copyright laws, as with most forms of intellectual property laws, are put in place in order to foster innovation and inspire growth.  However according to, some technology experts including the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggest that the DMCA has been used to “stifle competition and expand corporate control over the life of its products”, which stifles progressive innovation in the process.

In conclusion, this is a very tricky situation.  The automobile manufacturers make a fair point in saying that cars aren’t just vehicles anymore, and need to have protections for their software much like a computer.  It is true that tinkering with the coding of a car could make it unsafe, and circumventing the security measures in place should, by law of the DMCA, be illegal.  However, consumers own these cars, and should be free to do with them as they wish.  The reason copyright laws were put into place originally was to promote innovation, but, how can one be innovative without being allowed to tinker?  Surely there is a way that the main security coding can stay in tact, while giving the owners of the cars a way to personalize their cars as they see fit by tinkering?  Either way, it is a very tough and sticky situation, and I will be anxious to see what the Copyright Office decides to do in July.  With the courts tending to side with major corporations on issues like these recently, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them grant at least some DMCA rights to the Automobile Manufacturers.  A solution I would propose would be to meet somewhere in the middle.  The features concerning safety should be locked, and are dangerous if corrupted.  Thus, these should be afforded protection under DMCA.  However, since the car is still a possession of the owner, as long as he or she is not bypassing security codes involved with safety regulatory features, the manufacturer’s should meet in the middle and grant the owner the right to do this.  If total control is granted to the owner of the vehicle, roads may become unsafe.  Conversely, if manufacturer’s are deemed the sole influences who can meddle with their products, it could lead down a slippery slope where eventually all technological devices are owned by the people who make them, and nobody would have true ownership of their computing machines.


Works Cited:, Copyright Office, Copyright Office, Wired Magazine, Kyle Weins, 4/21/2015

Intellectual Property, Dan Hunter, Oxford Press, 2012


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