The logical answer would seem to be ‘no’ – but recent reforms in the US have altered the landscape 

Today’s cars contain a complex array of computers – known as electronic control units – which run everything from the air-conditioning to the brakes. But while you may own your car, you do not necessarily own the software that runs it. Auto manufacturers take the view that car owners simply license the software, and so they protect it with technical measures like encryption.

The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits the circumvention of technical measures that have been built into systems to protect copyright works, for example by descrambling, decrypting, bypassing or removing them. Every three years, however, the US Librarian of Congress exempts certain acts if consumers are deemed to be adversely affected by this anti-circumvention rule.

US car owners get green light to modify…

The latest exemption, declared in October 2015, allows car owners in the US to modify software in their own vehicles – to enhance suspension or improve fuel efficiency, for example – without infringing copyright laws. In other words, if the circumvention of protection measures is necessary for the diagnosis, repair or lawful modification of a vehicle function, the owner has the legal green light to proceed.

The exemption was initially proposed by digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which argued that car owners should be able to modify their cars without being forced to take them to authorised repair shops. Supporters claimed the exemption would also encourage research into security vulnerabilities, an argument that has become particularly pertinent in light of Charlie Millier and Chris Valasek’s recent talk at Black Hat USA 2015. But vehicle manufacturers (including General Motors and John Deere) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contended that tampering with the systems was likely to make vehicles non-compliant with safety and emissions regulations.

... with certain restrictions

On this occasion, the US government concluded that vehicle owners were adversely impacted by technological restrictions applied to vehicle computers, while opponents’ concerns were better protected by means other than copyright law. To address their concerns, however, the exemption contains several limitations:

  • It does not cover vehicle entertainment and telematics programs, as there was insufficient evidence to show that vehicle owners needed to access these;
  • The exemption only applies to owners, not third parties such as independent repair shops;  
  • Modifications must not breach other laws, including environmental and transportation regulations; and
  • There is a 12-month delay in implementation to allow for the EPA and other agencies to prepare.

This development has been welcomed as it provides legal certainty for car owners. But exemptions only last for three years, so its supporters will have to make their case again in 2018 if they want it to continue. The long-term benefits, therefore, remain to be seen.