Thanks to the DMCA, Your Right to Repair May Actually Just Be an “Alternative Right”

February 4, 2017

I’m sure you’ve all seen the “check-engine” light come on in your car or on your motorcycle, and I’m sure you’ve wanted to get it checked out and removed as quickly as possible, partly due to caring about your vehicle, but mostly because those lights are annoying. Or maybe you’re the tinkering type and wanted to add a new exhaust for some added performance and a good sound. None of that should be a problem, right? It’s your vehicle after all, right? Well, not so fast. Thanks to some poor drafting in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) could seek copyright infringement claims against you if you do any repairs or modifications that alter the vehicle’s computer system, which is more often than not proprietary technology. This doesn’t apply solely to vehicles, but that’s what we’ll be talking about today.
Section 1201 of the DMCA protects “Digital Rights Management” (DRM)—software locks controlling access to copyrighted work—from being tampered with. That could be as little as clearing the engine code on your own. If the OEMs designed the products in such a way that the maintenance or modification breaks some DRM, you have now infringed on the copyright and potentially opened up yourself to a lawsuit. And many vehicles, especially newer models, are littered with this kind of technology.
Do you think this is a bit ridiculous? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. A few states are considering their own “right to repair” laws, modeled after Massachusetts’ 2012 “Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act.” Additionally, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pushed for exemptions relating to vehicle repair and modification. These exemptions, however, don’t completely fix the initial drafting issues of DMCA 1201—mechanics aren’t allowed to do so on a customer’s behalf.
But as with any cause, there are inevitably those in favor of such restrictions. In this case, it’s no surprise the parties in favor of restriction are the manufacturers themselves. But they don’t want the restrictions to be placed only on the owner. They want the restrictions to include any “non-factory trained technicians.” That could mean your local mechanic wouldn’t be permitted to make those changes on your vehicle if they didn’t receive specialized training from the manufacturer.
The manufacturers cite public safety as their biggest reason for supporting restrictions on maintenance, arguing that anyone other than a manufacturer-approved technician would create a safety risk to consumers. But that goes heavily against car and bike cultures. I personally know people who have always, and will always do their own maintenance and modifications on their vehicles, myself included. There is the stereotype that a mechanic will often take advantage of your lack of subject matter knowledge to overcharge and over-prescribe work. Working on your own vehicles, or personally knowing someone who does allows you to have your car maintained by someone you truly trust. Additionally, it doesn’t necessarily make the work unsafe. Many mechanics and enthusiasts devote their lives to actually understanding the intricate workings of the vehicles they deal with. Plus, there are numerous tools and literature available to allow virtually anyone to adequately and safely do maintenance, repairs, or modifications on their vehicles.

While it would appear the manufacturers are looking out for the safety of people, it’s something of a slap in the face to enthusiasts, basically saying they have no clue about their vehicles or how to take care of them.

The more likely reason for supporting the restrictions is money. Limiting who can legally work on a vehicle creates a monopoly, allowing the already high rates for mechanic work to soar, because the dealership or OEM-certified mechanics are the only ones permitted to work on the vehicle. The manufactures say that their training is the only way to be truly capable of performing the work. Realistically, all they would need to do is put out a manual similar to Chilton repair manuals. They could even charge for the books and make a profit. But the profits probably wouldn’t be as much as they could be if only the manufacturer or certified mechanic were permitted to do the work.
Lawmakers are continually fighting for your right to repair. After all, it is YOUR vehicle. Home repairs have always been around—many new companies were founded on home tinkering. It is ingrained in the culture, so why should we accept a change like this? With states continuing to fight, it is unlikely major cases will result from home repairs or modifications. But with groups like MIC, ROHVA, and SVIA (motorcycle and off-road vehicle groups) trying to push legislation, enthusiasts and non-factory certified mechanics should keep developments on their radars. If we lose the freedom to work on and modify our vehicles, we lose a large part of the spirit of the cultures we love.