With each passing year, vehicles become less mechanical and more digital. Strip out all the software and modern cars lose their prized connectivity, safety, and fuel economy features.
For this reason, if you polled the average new car buyer, they’d probably be in favor of keeping their digitized equipment on board. However, according to John Deere – one of the largest producers of agricultural equipment – and General Motors, that software in your car isn’t really even yours.
In an issue expanded upon by Wired, John Deere has informed the United States Copyright Office that every piece of software on its tractors is still under the company’s ownership. In other words, everything that makes a modern tractor work isn’t actually owned by the farmers who buy these machines. John Deere’s exact phrasing is that farmers have “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”
Reportedly, other large companies have claimed similar types of continuing ownership related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The act is related to the differences between hardware and software from a legal standpoint. GM is among the brands who have argued that new product software should not be modified.
Wired goes on to point out that if the Copyright Office rules that manufacturers still own the software after its in owner hands, then anyone who adjusts programming – even if it’s on your “smart coffeemaker” or to repair a broken tractor is breaking the law. How? John Deere argues that third parties could steal the software if an owner has access to it for repairs or modifications. Hilariously, John Deere even makes the point that access to this software to lead to illegal music downloads through a tractor’s infotainment system.
GM’s (and other automakers’) specific bone to pick in this case is that consumers could “conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software in a vehicle.” By this token, anyone who has legal access to the software can make modifications to make cars go faster or violate emissions laws. While this is a valid point, it should in no way fall under the jurisdiction of the copyright office. Wired notes that police officers will pull over speeders and the EPA will issue penalties to lawbreakers.
The concept of ownership is a twisted one, and as software powers more of our lives, we may soon find that we “own” very little of what we buy.