Did You Know It Is Illegal To Work On Or Modify Your Vehicle

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In the digital age we live in, there are tons of laws out there that prevent companies from stealing programs and information other companies create. Most of these software laws are covered under a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that was enacted in 1998.

DMCA_4Basically, this DMCA law makes it illegal to copy, distribute or use a deviation of the software. The 18 page document (see here) outlines what is and isn’t covered. The original intent was to protect software developers. Whether that was Microsoft, Apple, and/or Sony it didn’t matter what type of software it was, it just protected the company’s investment from being taken and slightly modified.

Because of this law, many companies have taken the position that you actually don’t own the devices you use. Your cellphone, for instance, isn’t really yours to do what you want with. You own the shell, but the actual operating system and functionality is owned by your phone company. Any modifications you make, are actually illegal.

So, what does that have to do with your vehicle? Well, automobile manufacturers are taking the stance, that today’s vehicles are operated by software. While you may have paid $50K or more for your truck, you actually don’t have the right to work on it or modify it. All of the accessories you add and the repairs you make aren’t legal. Or at least that is the manufacture’s stance. They are, currently, pushing to get the Copyright Office to accept this logic.

2014 F-Series Super Duty

If the Copyright Office does side on the manufacturers side, then it wouldn't apply to anyone running one of these.

If they do, you will no longer be able to change your own oil, rotate your tires, or really do anything. Everything must be done by one of the manufacturer’s dealers. Otherwise, you are modifying something you don’t own and it is illegal, basically…

If the Copyright Office accepts this logic, not only will it be illegal to modify your vehicle, but if you work for a company that only focuses on OBDII vehicles, then you just found yourself unemployed. This law would only effect computer controlled vehicles. But how many shops and manufacturers build products and focus on late model vehicles? Only the vast majority of them. This law or interpretation would cripple the aftermarket industry.

The largest and best voice the aftermarket has is an organization by the name of SEMA or Specialty Equipment Market Association. They are the 800 pound gorilla that has quite a lobbyist on the payroll and is heading up the resistance to this petition. Today, they released this public statement on their position:

SEMA’s position maintains that industry members and enthusiasts have today, and have always had, the right to access vehicle systems and components in order to utilize, maintain and upgrade their vehicles, copyright laws notwithstanding. Although SEMA believes these rights stand regardless of an exemption from the DMCA, the association will actively engage in the rulemaking procedure and work to prevent any Copyright Office ruling that would curtail the opportunity to access, maintain and modify vehicles within the law. SEMA’s position signals that the association will advocate on all fronts to ensure that copyright, safety and environmental laws are not used to unfairly curtail these rights.

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Companies like Bosch Motorsports offer standalone engine management systems. This would be the only way to modify your late model truck. Even then, you would need to remove all other electronics (possibly even the ABS system).

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Shops that earn their living working on late model vehicles would need to either close or only work on non-OBDII vehicles.

This is very reassuring as SEMA has been extremely successful in fighting litigation that would harm the industry. Well, that is except for the recent laws passed by New Jersey basically outlawing modifications and then you have Illinois’ newest bill proposing to ban diesel modifications.

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The good thing for upper level competition trucks is that they don’t run late model electronics.

When it comes to the gas stuff, they are a powerhouse. This is why Power Automedia (our publishing company) is proud to be part of this organization and why it is important for everyone to be part of SEMA.

Please keep an eye out for e-mails and petitions asking you to send an e-mail or call a specific person. For SEMA to be able to flex their muscle, they need to have an active membership. They send out e-mails requesting that certain people be sent an e-mail or an office receive calls. This is them flexing their muscle getting politicians to act in a favorable way for the aftermarket.

Don’t believe this stuff works? Just ask any politician if they would cross the NRA. This relatively small group is one of the biggest powerhouses in the lobbying community because of how active their members are.

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How long before manufacturers start to say this is illegal too?

About the author

Chad Westfall

With diesel running through his veins from childhood, Chad has more than a decade of experience in the automotive industry. From editorial work to wrenching, there isn’t much he hasn't conquered head-on. When he’s not writing and shooting trucks and tech, you’ll find him in the shop working on turning the ideas floating around in his head into reality.
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