The long arm of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) continues to reach into the lives of Americans everywhere.

It was an act that, like many others, was drafted with (mostly) noble intentions. Implemented by the World Intellectual Property Organization in 1996, the DMCA was intended to protect ownership of proprietary technology, services, and devices, and criminalizes those who would reproduce and/or distribute these protected properties.

By and large, this is a good thing. With just a few significant exceptions, copyright and patent laws are essential for protecting innovation and competitiveness. Sure, the system can—and often is—abused by patent trolls, but the system has mostly served us well.

Historically, the DMCA has been used to bring justice to those who would steal the work that others have created. If you’ve ever downloaded Game of Thrones online, for example, you are making yourself susceptible to a DMCA cease and desist.

But what if the DMCA could be used to restrict what paying customers do with the products and services they already own? Unfortunately, it’s really not as far-fetched as it sounds.

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Proprietary Everything

Let’s look at the DMCA through the lens of the automotive industry, because that’s where the next battle will be waged.

Anybody who’s looked under the hood of a modern car knows that they’re becoming more and more difficult to repair by anyone who isn’t a trained professional in the employ of that car’s manufacturer. Yes; this is to some extent a natural consequence of our constantly evolving technologies.

But the truth is a bit more complicated. They might not admit it, but auto manufacturers don’t want you tinkering around in there. They want you to have to drive to their nearest authorized service dealer instead. And why wouldn’t they? First, they sell you the car—and then they sell you every slight bit of maintenance you need performed throughout the lifetime of that car.

So now we have proprietary batteries, complicated computers and software, and hundreds of other parts that aren’t user serviceable, replaceable, or easily accessible. It’s all adds up to a simple fact: car owners are being systematically compelled to stop tinkering with their own personal property.

But enterprising souls have always managed to get around the physical limitations. So, now, automakers are using the language of the law—namely, the DMCA—to stop would-be tinkerers.

Cars as Software

It all comes down to computers. Cars everywhere are becoming more and more reliant on software to provide the performance we’ve come to expect. And that’s how car companies are invoking the DMCA.

Automakers would have us classify our cars as “mobile computing devices.” If you think that sounds like a stretch, you’re right. And it’s no accident: such a re-classification would subject our cars to the same DMCA restrictions that exist in a variety of other industries. Here, verbatim, is a statement made by the Auto Alliance to defend their very creative reading of the law:

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.

Portions of that sound a little bit like the weird and probably pointless “Don’t remove under penalty of law” tag that comes attached to every mattress sold in America.

Yes; I’ll grant that they have at least a couple of points that are worthy of consideration. It’s entirely possible that you could compromise the safety of your vehicle if you tinker around with proprietary car components. But you know what? That’s always been true; we’ve always taken our safety into our own hands when it comes to cars. We frequently abuse and use them in ways that they were never intended to be used.

The counter-argument to the Auto Alliance’s statement goes something like this: If you have paid money for a product, it’s nobody’s business but yours what you do with it. Sure; digital goods (music and TV shows) are a different matter in many ways—and DMCA takedown requests adhere to the original spirit of the Act.

But I don’t think very highly of this idea that we should be forever locked out of our cars. Restricting what we do with our personal property is not just a draconian concept, but also a totally laughable one. Moreover, it’s preventing a new generation of car owners from learning how their vehicles work.

If you’re interested in getting an amendment to the DMCA off the ground, here’s something you can do: sign this petition. It will communicate to our lawmakers that we want to be able to work on our own cars as we see fit.

Image Credit: Horia Varlan (via Creative Commons license)

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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