GM: That Car You Bought? We’re Really The Ones Who Own It.

Congratulations! You just bought a new Chevy, GMC, or Cadillac. You really like driving it. And it’s purchased, not leased, and all paid off with no liens, so it’s all yours… isn’t it? Well, no, actually: according to GM, it’s still theirs. You just have a license to use it.

At least, that’s what an attorney for GM said at a hearing this week, Autoblog reports. Specifically, attorney Harry Lightsey said, “It is [GM’s] position the software in the vehicle is licensed by the owner of the vehicle.”

GM’s claim is all about copyright and software code, and it’s the same claim John Deere is making about their tractors. The TL;DR version of the argument goes something like this:

  • Cars work because software tells all the parts how to operate
  • The software that tells all the parts to operate is customized code
  • That code is subject to copyright
  • GM owns the copyright on that code and that software
  • A modern car cannot run without that software; it is integral to all systems
  • Therefore, the purchase or use of that car is a licensing agreement
  • And since it is subject to a licensing agreement, GM is the owner and can allow/disallow certain uses or access.

The U.S. Copyright Office is currently holding a series of hearings on whether or not anyone other than the manufacturer of a car has a right to tinker with that car’s copyrighted software. And with the way modern design goes, that basically means with the car, at all.

Folks who like to tinker with their cars, as well as independent (non-dealer) mechanics say they need the copyright exemption in order to be allowed to continue repairing their own cars, or keeping their businesses open. Manufacturers, like GM, say that it’s a safety issue: if people who aren’t authorized mess with any one piece of software, they could make the entire ecosystem of connected code unsafe.

An attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation also testified at the hearing, telling the Copyright Office that restricting access to onboard computers in vehicles drives up costs, hurts competition, and stifles innovation. It also prevents third party researchers from conducting independent safety and security research without becoming lawbreakers.

The first of the two sessions of hearings started yesterday in Los Angeles. The other will take place next week, in Washington, DC. The Copyright Office is expected to issue a ruling in July determining just what you can and can’t do with the things you thought you bought.

General Motors says it owns your car’s software [AutoBlog]