By on November 26, 2014

Auto Repair

Planning to work on your new car? Pray you don’t receive a DMCA notice upon opening the hood.

Per Autoblog, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says modifying the ECUs’ code could be seen as an act of copyright violation should the automaker and/or the supplier decide to make it so. Thus, the non-profit is asking the U.S. Copyright Office to exempt hobbyists and shade-tree mechanics from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, specifically Section 1201 (which we’ve talked about before).

For now, modifications to the ECU, such as boosting fuel economy or horsepower, would void a given warranty at worse. As automakers continue toward the path of consolidation, though, the potential profit in the untapped remapping market would be enough for them to lock out competitors and grab all rights to the technology.

However, a ruling could curb those DMCA notices: a 2012 case involving Lexmark and printer cartridges resulted in the decision that “companies like Lexmark cannot use the DMCA in conjunction with copyright law to create monopolies of manufactured goods for themselves.” The ruling provides protection for the original work, but not to the extent of using security measures — such as those lovely, Red Book-violating CDs from the 2000s — to protect said work.

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50 Comments on “EFF: ECU Modification May Result In DMCA Notice...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Does this mean Norm’s in trouble?

  • avatar
    sirwired

    If automakers actually wanted to do this, they would have taken the most basic security measures years ago. While keeping out all hackers for all time is difficult, keeping out the less-determined is not, yet automakers don’t bother.

    The “anti-tuner” measures seem confined to trying to detect when you’ve modified the car as a data-point for denying powertrain-related warranty claims.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      This brings up the whole issue of tuning which we’ve beat to death on these pages many of times. I still get back to the conclusion that car makers are doing so much to get every bit of horsepower and mpgs out of modern engines are they really leaving anything on the table for wrenchers to mine?

      • 0 avatar
        Toad

        There is plenty of performance to wring out of your existing engine, but it will come at cost: meeting EPA requirements, additional drive train stresses, reliability, additional maintenance, cold weather starts, etc.

        OEM’s have to design their vehicles for the lowest common denominator, and that means a 50% driver cannot be expected to operate or maintain an engine running at 100% capability.

        Don’t be surprised to see the EPA to get involved if tuning becomes more popular. If there is a chance tuners are setting cars up to no longer conform to pollution standards you can expect to see ECM’s redesigned so that they cannot be modified by anyone except the factory using EPA approved code.

        You want a cleaner environment, that is the price you pay.

        • 0 avatar
          Mr. Orange

          Yes. See example CARB.

        • 0 avatar
          Exfordtech

          In my dealership days reflashes of the PCM were and still are quite common as a fix for various driveablility or trans shift issues. Each time a new PCM calibration was developed, it had to be EPA certified before it could be used on a vehicle, and part of the repair procedure included affixing a new underhood emissions decal with the modification info. How does the aftermarket tuner circumvent this process? They are modifying the emissions control system.

          • 0 avatar
            MBella

            I have updated engine control software many times, and have never had to affix a new emissions label because of it.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Hopefully we’ll never see jackboots in action on this issue.

      • 0 avatar
        heavy handle

        “are they really leaving anything on the table?”

        Yes, in some cases. For instance, the old C Class had 2 models with the same engine and different power levels (3 in Canada where the C250 4matic had a V6). I’m sure that the difference between them was just code.

        You can also tune for higher minimum octane ratings and better throttle response, or tighter steering, or anything else that’s controlled by the ECU.

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          I guess it depends on the car. I can’t even get a tune for mine. She’s giving me all she’s got, Captain

          • 0 avatar
            Lorenzo

            Have you tried putting two hamsters in each wheel? Just make sure they’re male-male, or female-female.

            (From an old Mad Magazine parody of “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea”)

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        What Toad said. If you’re looking for all out power, there is generally more to be had but at the expense of emissions compliance. Fuel economy too, but at the expense of emissions compliance and possibly your catalytic converter.

      • 0 avatar
        JMII

        With VW’s turbos the answer is a solid YES – there is a lot left on the table for ECU tuners to work with.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      Which is fair.

      I modify a lot of my esectronics, and there really is no reason that the parts I re-engineer should be covered by the warranty.

      Trading the warranty for power over your own stuff in a fair deal. The company should only be on the hook for their original hardware and software. In exchange, they shouldn’t fight me if I want out of that deal.

      P.S. My Google/Asus Nexus 7 makes it easy to unlock the bootloader, but shows an open lock on the initial boot screen if you do. Presumably, if I were to approach Google tech support with an unlocked device, their support people would tell me to take a hike if the problem could be connected to alternate software. I’m OK with that, and I decide to install Cyangenmod on it anyway!

    • 0 avatar
      Auto Motive

      They are doing this now. The new hellcat Dodge has a proprietary ECM and any modifications require a very expensive aftermarket ECM. Companies like Hennesy, Rousch and Saleen that do expensive aftermarket high performance mods to engines will have to either get permission from Dodge for the ECM codes or charge thousands more for the new ECM.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Chrysler has been going the extra mile with encryption since they introduced the GPEC controllers. Because the demand is there, tuners have eventually cracked it, and they will with the Hellcat’s as well. Just give it time, I’ll bet that in less than a year ther’ll be something on the market.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      “If automakers actually wanted to do this, they would have taken the most basic security measures years ago”

      That’s the beauty of the DMCA: you don’t need to have basic security steps; you just have to prove that something, no matter how lame, is a security feature.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        I’m surprised somebody hasn’t prosecuted DMCA pushers under RICO. Copyright, my foot. I bought the car, it’s my property. Unless you can prove I’m making money off the mod, go fahrvergnugen yourself.

        • 0 avatar
          MBella

          This, and has been the argument SEMA has successfully fought to keep the aftermarket industry in business. You aren’t violating anybody’s copyright by paying for the copyrighted product and then changing it how you want.

        • 0 avatar
          wumpus

          You can’t even hit the DMCA pushers for perjury, even when they are lying through their teeth on “pain of perjury”. You can’t even get copyright trolls on RICO even when they are suing over copyrights they don’t own.

          Lawmakers are lawyers (D-defense/R-corporate), and thus make lawyers a priveledged caste above such laws.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Joe Average heads to the dealer to pick up his car after recall work was done-

    Mechanic: Recalls are complete but.. we found a problem in your computer.
    You: Great. What did you find?
    Mech: Someone modified settings in the ECU to shut off the seatbelt warning.
    You: Ya I did that. So what. It was annoying.
    Mech: Come with me please.
    You: What the hell is this?
    Mech: You have violated the DMCA regarding this vehicle’s proprietary and copyrighted electronic information. I am placing you under arrest.
    You: You’re a mechanic for God sake!
    Mech: I am also an agent of the TSA, NSA, FBI, CIA, ATF as well as local authorities. You may want to make a few calls. You won’t be going anywhere for a while.

    Sounds crazy.. is it?

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    i’m of the opinion that the companies will try anything to get out of warranty obligations

    currently we have companies here that offer 7 year unlimited mileage

    the ecu has so many variables that can affect part life and emissions so i would expect them to be vigilant but misusing laws in this manner is a bit suspect

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      None of the 3 OEMs I’ve worked for “will try anything” to avoid paying for warranty repairs. They want to be fair and cover defects as they are contractually obliged. When a customer changes the parameters of the vehicle and failures happen because of it, they don’t want to pay for customer induced damage. Customers know what they’re getting into when they install the Bullydog kit and crank the boost. Then they try and “put it back to stock” to try and hide why the head bolts stretched. Nice try, but there are tattle tales.

      As far as the DMCA stuff goes, don’t expect individual customers to get much if any hassle. The intent of this is to go after tuning houses who’s product is modifying ECUs. Not that I like the idea of that, but it is what it is.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        They should be going after HID kits. I had to beat on a guy with the law because he couldn’t believe a company would sell him a kit if it’s illegal

        • 0 avatar
          MBella

          The problem with the HID kits are that they aren’t illegal. They are illegal for use on public roads. You can have as many HID kits as you want off road, in your house, etc. They are only illegal to put into your DOT approved headlight assemblies, and drive with them on a public road.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            That’s not true. The kits are illegal because there sole purpose is to replace the standard bulb with an HID which is illegal. The bulb is NOT illegal, the kit is

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    We will also be placing a micro chip in your brain that will control any nonconforming behavior that would further cause you to modify a vehicle from its lawful standards. This device will send tiny shocks to the brain which will hurt when you even think of any deviations from the standard. If you try to have said device removed from your brain it will send out an alarm to the local law enforcement with your GPS location and you will be taken into custody.

  • avatar
    mechimike

    I just filed and gapped the points in my daily driver last night.

    This is what it’s going to come down to.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    This is highly unlikely; unlike Lexmark, Keurig or any company that makes movies and CDs, there’s no financial incentive for automakers to prosecute their own customers for screwing with an ECU. It’s not like you’re going to copy the firmware from the Hellcat to an SRT-8 and magically get a few hundred extra horses.

    They’ll just deny you warranty support, which is what cellphone manufacturers do: increment a counter or add a tripwire in firmware that tips them off if you messed with it. Which, frankly, is fine.

    The point of the DMCA and the like is to lower the barrier of enforcement so that rights-holders don’t actually have to try to make decent encryption; they can just do something incredibly lame (like, say, ROT13’ing a file) and call it “encryption” which you would be liable for bypassing.

    Rentier capitalism at it’s best.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      If modding the ECU only affected the horsepower the only concerns would be drive train damage and related warranty coverage. But when you change engine parameters your inevitably change emissions and that is a big no-no. All cars are required to meet federal standards and it would not be shocking to see penalties for this ratcheted up from failing a state inspection all the way up to impounding the car.

      The fine for bypassing or modifying the diesel emissions systems on commercial trucks is $10,000 per truck for the owner and $20,000 for a shop that does the mods. Seeing something similar to that trickle down to passenger cars would not be shocking and that would be the end of the tuner industry.

      Again, if you want clean air… It is hypocritical to complain about coal power plants and then jump into a modded Civic that has the been tuned and the catalytic converter replaced with a fart can.

      • 0 avatar
        mik101

        Some places in Canada already do for say removing catalytic converters. The shop fine I believe is $10,000 where I am. The owners fine is something like an order of magnitude less.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    What a load of horses***.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    Many aftermarket tuners are supplying programs for various vehicles. On my VW GTI i could purchase various stages of tunes up to approx 300 HP. Some of these tunes are being offered by various VW dealers and they claim it will not effect the warranty. About once a month i go to the VW GTI forums and someone is having a problem with a dealer not wanting to do warranty work because the car was “tuned”. In my eyes if you have the car “tuned” you will push the car harder then you would a stock engine therefore putting the drive train under additional pressure and causing something to brake under the additional pressure. I have always used a VacCom program on all the VWs my wife and i have owned because their are various options i can open in the computer like opening and locking the car and lowering and closing the windows while i am in the house in case of rain. New cars are not like 20 years ago when you could change the cam, change around a few cab jets etc.

  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    Sometimes copyrights are enforced by companies for no logical reason. Just to limit some unforeseen liability.

    I agree that a car manufacturer has no reason to go draconian in an areas like this, but I could see some absurd case where the EPA brings charges against them because don’t enforce their copyright laws.

    The amount of additional pollution that comes from a modded ECU is not even a rounding error. A weed wacker probably pollutes more than 10,000 cars with altered ECUs.

    But never underestimate how ridiculous the legal system or government agencies can get in this country.

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