Copy-Wrong! Does Copyright Law Prevent You from Owning Your Vehicle?

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2016 Ford F-650 and F-750

In the news lately there has been a bit of a kerfuffle, a fracas, if you will, about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and an owner’s ability to work on a vehicle. Some have suggested that according to this law, you don’t actually own the vehicle that you purchase. While Ford isn’t one of the manufacturers currently mentioned making a big deal out if it, I feel it’s important for us enthusiasts to stay informed, especially if the landscape changes.

As many of you already know, computer software controls a large portion of today’s automobiles. While there are technologically advanced systems like automatic parallel parking, even something as simple as the drive-by-wire throttle is controlled by code. It’s part of the reason why some of you prefer purchasing older Fords. They’re just easier to work on.

Computer code is protected by the DMCA, so it’s obvious that that same copyright law would apply to a large portion of a new automobile.


In the past, different manufacturers used different engineering techniques to make their cars faster, more efficient, or stronger. Now, computer code can dramatically alter the performance or fuel efficiency of a car, without having to change a single component.

With the DMCA, it is illegal to break the copy protection or encryption that prevents computer code to be decompiled and examined. It makes a lot of sense in the music or movie universe, where breaking the encryption means you could illegally share or distribute the product.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Copyright law exists on the computer code to prevent other manufacturers or individuals from decompiling the code, and altering how the vehicle performs. Or, copying the proprietary code and using it in a competing product.

It does make sense that a manufacturer would want to prevent another OEM for stealing their secrets. It’s a long-standing tradition for other OEMs to purchasing competing vehicles for the sake of benchmarking and examining the vehicle. Software encryption helps protect the original OEM from losing a trade secret.

1978 F-100 Ranger Build

If we were to stop there, then that’d actually make a certain amount of sense. Heck, a hobbyist could potentially do a lot of damage to their vehicle by attempting to alter the code. But the manufacturer isn’t saying that you can’t work on your car. They aren’t preventing you from changing your oil or performing other service. They’re just saying messing with the computer that controls the entire vehicle could have unintended consequences.

But here’s the problem. If you’ve ever read the End User License Agreement (EULA) when you installed software on your computer, you’d actually see that you are granted limited use of the software in the way the software manufacturer sees fit. That means you don’t actually own the software you bought, you just are allowed to use it. Now, normally that doesn’t cause any issues, but in theory that software maker could come back and say “you can’t use it anymore,” and you’d have to stop.

On a $0.99 app in the app store, that might not be a big deal. But on a $50,000 vehicle, that might cause you a bit of hardship. We’ll keep you informed as time goes on about this and if the law changes.

It does make a compelling argument for buying an old truck so you don’t have to worry about stuff like this. But what do you think? Let us know in the forums!

Chad Kirchner is a regular contributor to Corvette Forum and Ford Truck Enthusiasts, among other auto sites.

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