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Owner Modification of a Car’s Software Gains DMCA Exemption Status

(December 1, 2015) Cars are computers on wheels and modifying their software may violate copyright laws. But thanks to the U.S. Copyright Office, it will be a “fair use” for owners to make most changes to their car’s software.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), 17 U.S.C. Sec. 1201(a)(1), prohibits unauthorized persons from accessing copyrighted material protected by anti-circumvention measures. Recently, the U.S. Copyright Office Library of Congress, over the objections of car manufacturers, granted two exemptions for car owners, determining such circumvention to be fair use.

The first exemption allows an “authorized owner” to diagnose, repair, or “lawfully” modify the code as long as such modification does not violate other statutes. This exemption retains the ability of car owners to work on their own vehicles as long as they do not make modifications that would disable or downgrade pollution control systems in violation of the Environmental Protection Act. However, the exemption does not apply to computer programs chiefly designed to operate a vehicle’s entertainment or telematics systems.

The second exemption permits security research “for purposes of good-faith testing, investigation and/or correction of a security flaw or vulnerability, when such activity is carried out in a controlled environment designed to avoid any harm to individuals or the public.” This exemption was unsuccessfully opposed by car manufactures who claimed that the security research could be used by “bad actors” to hack into cars.

The Copyright Office has delayed the implementation of the exemptions for 12 months to allow the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to issue rules regarding what software modifications would be prohibited, such as disabling pollution control software.