Using Copyright Laws to Push Independent Mechanics Out of the Market

You have two options when your out of warranty vehicle needs repairs. Option one is to spend a small fortune taking your vehicle to the certified dealer and having their mechanics fix it. The other option is to spend far less money and either repair it yourself or take it to an independent mechanic. Because automobile manufacturers make tons of money off repairing the vehicles they sell they have a direct interest in locking out independent mechanics (both professional and hobbyists).

It’s difficult to lock people out of purely mechanical devices. Any part on a car can be fabricated with enough machining tools and many people rely on this fact to restore old vehicles. But computer technology is offering automobile manufacturers an option to legally lock out independent mechanics through copyright law:

Allowing them to continue to fix their cars has become “legally problematic,” according to a written statement from the Auto Alliance, the main lobbying arm of automakers.

The dispute arises from a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that no one thought could apply to vehicles when it was signed into law in 1998. But now, in an era where cars are rolling computing platforms, the U.S. Copyright Office is examining whether provisions of the law that protect intellectual property should prohibit people from modifying and tuning their cars.


In comments submitted so far, automakers have expressed concern that allowing outsiders to access electronic control units that run critical vehicle functions like steering, throttle inputs and braking “leads to an imbalance by which the negative consequences far outweigh any suggested benefits,” according to the Alliance of Global Automakers. In the worst cases, the organizations said an exemption for enthusiasts “leads to disastrous consequences.”

If automobile manufacturers are allowed to charge people who modify a vehicle’s electronics it opens the door for locking independent mechanics out of the automobile repair business. All it would take is including some rudimentary electronics on every major component of a vehicle (which often exist already) and require it to receive the proper digital signature from the on-board computer to operate. Then, in order for the vehicle to start, the manufacturer can set a requirement that each part must transmit the proper digital signature to the on-board computer. If any part or the on-board computer fails to provide the proper digital signature the car can simply refuse to start (for security purposes, of course).

By holding the private keys to create the correct digital signatures an automobile manufacturer could tightly control who can and cannot create parts for their vehicles. It could also control who it is willing to supply parts to. Right now investing so much money into implementing such a scheme is pointless because there’s no recourse for manufacturers to take against those who modify the electronics. That would change quickly if they could charge anybody who modifies the electronics of a vehicle under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Then they could get the state to go after anybody who modifies a vehicle’s electronics for them. Anybody who modifies the electronics on a vehicle would then face serious cage time and fines at little cost to the manufacturer.