There is a scene in the movie “Magic Mike” where the lead character — a male stripper — explains to a room of women the laws against having physical contact with a performer. Then he intones, “… but I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house.”
We know if we could look out through the Web browser, we could say the same thing. There’s a lot of gray zone activities considered commonplace. Have you ever ripped a CD or DVD to take with your on your phone? Gray; we won’t judge. A lot of the legal issues involved are thorny (and I should point out, I’m not a lawyer, so take what I say with a grain of salt).
Do you own your car? Well, probably you and the bank, but certainly the deal you made involves the idea that you own the car. If it is paid off, you can do what you like with it, including — if you wanted to — stripping it bare for parts. Back in the day, your car was some wheels and some mechanical devices. These days, it is a computer (actually, a few computers) and some I/O devices that process gasoline into rotary motion. Computers have software. Do you own that software?
The answer has, legally, been no. However, a recent decision by the US Copyright office allows car owners to legally analyze and modify their vehicle software (with some limitations) for the next two years. After that? We’ll see.
You still can’t mess with the entertainment system (because that might allow you to copy music or movies). There are a few other prohibited systems and modifications (such as disabling emission controls, which breaks other laws).
ECUs, Ebooks, and DVDs
This is very similar to the issues surrounding electronic books and videos. When you buy a paperback book, for example, you buy the physical object but not the contents (so the lawyers say). So the fact that you have a paperback book doesn’t necessarily give you the legal right to an electronic copy, even if you scan it yourself for your own use. Sure, it might fall under fair use, for example, but then again it might not. Same for a DVD. Ripping it to watch on another device is almost certainly illegal in the US. Not that people don’t do it all the time and there’s no real way to enforce it.
So why is hacking your car becoming acceptable and hacking your DVD video isn’t? Easy. It is money. There’s a huge amount of money backing the idea that you should buy the same content over and over again for different devices. The opposite side, in the car case, is the repair business that wants in on the action of fixing or modifying systems with software. Of course, the car makers are less than thrilled and the next two years will be a battle of dollars to see who can buy enough politicians to prevail.
Poor Ham Radio
If that sounds overly cynical, just look at other similar cases. For years, the FCC declined to interfere with “private contracts” (such as homeowner association restrictive covenants) that prohibited ham radio antennas. The claim was that they had no authority to do so. When those same private contracts started interfering with people putting up satellite TV antennas, the FCC put a stop to that. There may now be some light in the darkeness for HAMs living under HOAs.
So if you’ve been hacking your car computers in the US, congratulations! You, and our balaclava-wearing friend above, are legal. For a few years, anyway. Even if it becomes against the law again, like Magic Mike, I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house.