You know what a pain those plastic engine covers are? How they get in the way and hide your own car’s engine from you? Well, consider that black piece of molded plastic a metaphor for something much worse: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Automakers are trying to use the DMCA to say you can’t work on or modify your own car.

UPDATE: We just received a statement from the Automaker’s Alliance. It will be covered at the end of this article.

We all know that working on and tinkering with a modern car is a very different undertaking than it has been previously. It’s no longer just about putting on a new manifold and dual carbs, modern cars involve many, many computers, and working on your car usually means working with and talking to the computers embedded in the car.

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There’s nothing inherently wrong with all the computers in cars, and they allow for safety, convenience, and efficiency levels in our vehicles far beyond what we’ve been able to achieve before. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be repaired or tinkered with by the owner — it just takes a new set of skills and tools. It’s not like re-jetting a carburetor was something just anyone could do, anyway — this is really no different.

Well, it is different in one very important way: because so much of how modern cars work involves computers and software code, cars can now fall under the aegis of bills like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and automakers can use this act to try and restrict what an owner can do to the car that they bought.

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Automakers are considering cars “mobile computing devices” and as such would fall under the DMCA’s pretty draconian protections. Really —here’s how they describe their reasoning in the Auto Alliance’s (a group of carmakers including BMW Group, FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes- Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Cars North America) statement against a proposed exemption to allow people to work on their own cars:

Automobiles are inherently mobile, and increasingly they contain equipment that would commonly be considered computing devices... Many of the ECUs embodied in today’s motor vehicles are carefully calibrated to satisfy federal or state regulatory requirements with respect to emissions control, fuel economy, or vehicle safety. Allowing vehicle owners to add and remove programs at whim is highly likely to take vehicles out of compliance with these requirements, rendering the operation or re-sale of the vehicle legally problematic. 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. We urge the Copyright Office to give full consideration to the impacts on critical national energy and environmental goals, as well as motor vehicle safety, in its decision on this proposed exemption. Since the record on this proposal contains no evidence regarding its applicability to or impact on motor vehicles, cars and trucks should be specifically excluded from any exemption that is recommended in this area.

Now, it’s not like they don’t have any points — there could be safety implications (though not likely enough to make the car any less safe than, say, a road-legal vintage car), but locking out key safety features while leaving other components open to repair or modification is certainly possible. This isn’t an all-or-none kind of situation.

This means if you want to modify your car by getting your ECU flashed to make changes to, say, increase horsepower, change throttle response, or whatever, you’re violating the law, even if you don’t touch any of the safety or security code in the car’s computers.

The lengths automakers (and, as you’ll see, tractor and farm equipment makers) are going to justify the idea that you can’t modify a product you paid money for and own is absurd. The car makers don’t want you to be able to even look at any of the code in the vehicle you own and entrust your safety to, citing worst-case scenarios like you might try to use that code to change the odometer reading to defraud someone or you’ll use it to find ways to break into other people’s cars.

Even better, in this EFF article about the DMCA restrictions, they cite John Deere’s wildly bonkers justification for keeping people from tinkering with its products:

John Deere even argued that letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system ... (and the exemption process doesn’t authorize copyright infringement, anyway).

Right, that makes sense! What’s the best way to burn a copy of a friend’s CD? With a tractor! Or, better yet, a combine! Hell, those things are basically just big motorized music-pirating machines that just so happen to be able to harvest millet and sorghum.

This whole thing is wrong in so many ways, and if the automakers are allowed to restrict owner access to their own cars — whether they themselves tinker or repair them or not — a cascade of unfortunate effects will follow. Independent repair shops will have it especially rough, becoming vulnerable to manufacturer lawsuits if they attempt to repair a car by accessing the ‘restricted’ code or even just connecting to the ECU.

Aftermarket companies could become illegal, since technically, even something as basic as changing the wheel size on a car can affect the ECU’s ability to compute speed and make adjustments accordingly — and a manufacturer could decide that’s tampering with the inputs to the ECU or something. Maybe that’s a stretch, but maybe not — this law could make that possible.

I’m a firm believer that if you can’t open it, you don’t really own it. I believe in things like Mister Jalopy’s Maker’s Bill of Rights, and I firmly believe that everyone who owns a car has the right to work on their car.

If a manufacturer wants to void a warranty, fine. That’s the risk we take. If they want to make safety and emissions modifications harder to do — but still accessible for independent repair shops to work with — okay. Hell, if they even want to stop selling cars entirely and just lease cars with the understanding that the driver doesn’t truly own the vehicle, they’re free to do that, too.

But if I buy a car, I should always be free to fix or modify that car, even if it’s a terrible idea that gets me 20 HP and 11 MPG. It doesn’t matter — it’s my car. Besides, how would this be enforced, anyway? If you were pulled over, could a cop plug into your OBD port and read some checksum or something to see if the car has been modified? Would used cars be checked by some agency to insure compliance? It seems like a lot of waste and expense for something that’s just feeding a potential automaker repair and aftermarket monopoly.

The EFF is circulating a petition to add an exemption to the DMCA to allow people and independent shops to work on cars, and I encourage everyone to sign it.

I reached out to the Automaker’s Alliance via phone and email, but have not received a response as of publication time. I’ll update if I hear anything.

Now I think I’m going to rip the plastic engine cover off my press car.

UPDATE: A representative from the Automaker’s Alliance contacted me just as we published, and sent me the following email:

There may be a misunderstanding here. Attached are our full comments. You’ll see in both the overview and in page 12, we discuss the comprehensive safeguard, a nation-wide Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), that is in place in respect to the aftermarkets part industry. It’s important to note that in addition to the Alliance, the Association of Global Automakers, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality are all a part of the MOU.

Somehow the EFF submission doesn’t mention the agreement – which is surprising since it got so much press coverage at the time.. (possibly even from Jalopnik.. I can’t remember what press covered this..)

The bottom line here is that, everything needed to repair and diagnose a car is already available to the aftermarket and any vehicle owner, including modifiers.

The real issue of concern here is that the sophisticated computers in vehicles are so intertwined that they shouldn’t (for security and safety and environmental reasons) be allowed to be tinkered with.

That starts off well — an agreement to allow an aftermarket parts industry and independent repair shops to continue is certainly a positive, and not surprising, since those are both industries with money to throw around to make sure their livelihood isn’t threatened.

The individual mechanic/tinkerer/explorer, though, isn’t so lucky, as they stick to the line that

“vehicles are so intertwined that they shouldn’t (for security and safety and environmental reasons) be allowed to be tinkered with.”

... which, of course, I still have a problem with.

Also, when I read through their rebuttal to the EFF’s requests for exemptions, I found that one of their major arguments centered around this idea:

a. Proponents have failed to prove that vehicle owners are owners of copies of Electronic Control Unit (“ECU”) firmware within the meaning of 17 U.S.C. § 117.

... meaning, essentially, that since you don’t technically “own” the code in your ECU (you’re a licensee), you can’t modify or do anything to or with that code. And I have issues with that concept. Sure, legally, they back it up with a number of precedents from the computer and software industry ( Vernor v. Autodesk, Inc, for example, is cited), that doesn’t mean I have to like that idea.

Yes, they do have that Memorandum of Understanding with aftermarket parts makers and repair shops — fantastic. But they’re still in favor of locking out the individual owner from modifying, understanding, or even exploring a product they own outright, and that’s still a big problem for me.

It’s not a large group of people who would really be affected by this, sure, but that group of people are the curious, creative ones who are the ones for whom tinkering with their own cars provides the inspiration, experience, and insight that eventually gives birth to innovative new ideas that keep the whole industry advancing.

So, thanks for getting back to me, Automobile Alliance, but we still have a way to go.