There’s a certain thrill to bringing a brand vehicle home and starting it up for the first time. And with the joy of ownership is knowing that once you buy it, it’s yours to do with as you please. But manufacturers including GM and John Deere recently argued before the U.S. Copyright Office that they think the car’s software should fall under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That means that you might own the car – but the corporation owns the computer systems inside it, you just license it. Brent talks to Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit – a crowd-sourced website that bills itself as “The free repair guide for everything, written by everyone.” He’s also an activist in the “Right to Repair” movement.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s see I just put a third of my annual salary down to buy a brand new car. Is it fair to say that under this proposal, part of that car still doesn’t belong to me?
That’s what GM is saying. They’re arguing that you own the hardware piece of the car, but not the software piece of the car. The problem is that they’re the same thing because you have electronics that come with software on them and the car won’t work without the software.
But if I don’t own the software, why should I care other than the fact it’s just part of the car I can’t have access to?
There are a few reasons you would care. One is the manufacturers are saying you have an implied license. Well, if it’s a license it’s not legal for you to modify the software in your car. You say, “Why in the world would I ever want to modify my car?” but most repairs these days involved tinkering with software as well as tinkering with hardware. It’s becoming more and more difficult for independent repair shops to do the repairs that they need without permission from the manufacturer.
But this is really complex technology. Everything from rearview mirror cameras to self-parking mechanisms. So why wouldn’t I want the company that made the software to be in charge of it and be the ones that are actually fixing it and changing it?
There are a lot of situations where you want to do something that the manufacturer never intended. A really good example is off road racing. Most of the innovations in the automotive industry, including things like cruise control, actually started in the racing realm. They’re not usually going to design a new car from scratch. They take something off the shelf, they tinker with it, change the engine settings. I’ve seen a lot of innovation come out of that. There are situations where people own fleets with lots of vehicles. Maybe they want to impose a speed limit on the trucks that their drivers are driving around? Or maybe they have a fuel efficiency improvement, like a friend of mine has developed some software that improves the fuel efficiency. They use it and it has a dramatic impact. And it’s not just cars; it’s tractors, it’s computers, it’s iPhones. It’s everything we have.
So if the software in a car may have been modified, how can used car buyers have confidence in the software that anyone may have tinkered with for any reason?
This is the case in the market now because people are doing modifications. They are changing things, so this should just be part of the checklist. When you buy a used car, you go to the mechanic and you say, “Hey, can you check out the car before I buy it? Let me know if it’s OK.” One of the things that they can do is something called a checksum. They basically download the software off the car, they run it through a checksum and they see if it’s the same car from the manufacturer or not. And if it’s not the same software, then you just take the latest software from the manufacturer load it onto the car, and you’re good to go.
John Deere is one of the manufacturers we’re talking about here. And you mentioned tractors earlier. What does all this mean for farmers?
So this is a brand-new argument that really has farmers concerned because if you think about who needs to be able to do repairs or modify the equipment that they own on a regular basis, that’s a farmer. The definition of a farmer is you’re out there, quite often very far away from civilization. If you have a problem, you’re the only person that’s going to solve the problem. You can’t rely on the manufacturer a thousand miles away. If you can’t solve it yourself, you’re in a pickle. Now John Deere is saying, “Well we know that’s how you used to do it, but we put software on the tractors and now we’re going to use copyright law to prevent you from being able to do repairs and modifications on your own equipment.”
Has changed the relationship between John Deere and farmers? Or is there a possibility that that could happen?
It sure seems like it. It’s very concerning. I’m getting a lot of letters from farmers saying, “What should I do?” And we’re saying, “Well, maybe buy something other than a John Deere at this point.” Right now John Deere is the only agricultural manufacturer that’s taken this position and is opposing the exemption to the copyright law that the farmers have been asking for, so the Corn Growers Association came out and said, “Hey, wait a second. This is really upsetting to us. We don’t think that your new paradigm of ownership gels with our expectations.”
So could there be a liability issue here as vehicles become more reliant on technology, could manufacturers be exposed to lawsuits if they allowed for more open access to the software?
Well that’s what they’re arguing, but I think that that’s a little bit of a false concern because they’re already liable. I mean they have made the product. It’s out there. They put the warranty on it. If there’s a safety recall or something that they’re responsible for handling that. But at the point that you start modifying things, you know, if I get underneath my car and I cut the brake line I can’t go after GM for that. That’s something I did to my own equipment. We have this expectation that when you buy a product you have the right to be able to modify, improve, change it, color purple if you want. And there’s nothing that the manufacturing can do about that, so it really is more a question of control. They’re saying we want to control everything, but we don’t want any of the liability. We’re saying, “Well, if you’re not going to take on the liability, at least let us modify the things that we have.”
Kyle we’ve been talking about vehicles exclusively today, but there’s so much talk about the Internet of Everything. Can you give me examples of what else might apply to these kinds of closed systems down the road?
We’re talking here about copyright law and you say, “What does copyright law have to do with our things?” Well, the moment you put a computer chip inside of the physical thing, whether it’s a toaster or a phone or anything else, the moment you have that computer chip, now you have software. So rather than the traditional rules that regulate property, now you have intellectual property rules which are completely unintuitive and say all kinds of things like it’s not legal to break a digital lock. But it’s completely legal to pick a lock on something that you own. So if you have something like a tablet and you want to install an app that isn’t in the Apple app store, it’s not necessarily legal for you to do that. Now they granted an exemption so it’s legal to do that for phones, but not for tablets. So we’ve got this really unintuitive restrictive copyright law that now, by virtue of the electronics moving into everything that we own, the copyright law is moving into everything that own.
As you see it, how will the upcoming decision on American copyright law affect Canadians who buy these vehicles?
The interesting thing about U.S. copyright law in particular is that it tends not to stay in the U.S. They end up getting ensconced in trade treaties. And so with the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership, we don’t know the exact text of the treaty that’s being discussed, but the leaks that we have seen have showed that the pieces of American copyright law that we are most concerned about are in that treaty. And what we have heard from the negotiations behind the scenes is that Canada has been the most vociferous at trying to get those provisions removed from the treaty and that other countries like New Zealand have opposed Canada’s position.
Right, but that doesn’t mean that Canada will be successful or even if it’s part of their overall plan. It may just be a negotiating ploy.
It may be, although from what I’ve heard, it seems like it’s very genuine. So I would say, “Please support your local trade representative.” They’re on the right track and we need to make sure the other countries stand up alongside Canada and oppose this very unfortunate U.S. policy.