Copyright Office Ruling Makes For Infotainment Hell On Wheels

Gary Shapiro President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association
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From backup cameras and detection sensors to lane-departure and crash-avoidance warning systems, the technology embedded in today’s cars is moving at the speed of innovation.

But buying a new car is a major financial commitment, which is why many of us choose to upgrade the existing technology in our vehicles in-between new vehicle purchases. So why is the U.S. Copyright Office trying to limit aftermarket tech installation in cars?

A recent decision by the Copyright Office invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) would ban installation of aftermarket car tech by third-party installers — preventing tech-installation experts from doing precisely what they do best and keeping consumers from the enjoying the highest performance and most recent advances that in-car technology can offer.

Congress originally conceived DMCA in 1998 to protect the property rights of artists and creators. But there is no logical way a law intended to protect intellectual-property rights in the era of digital file-sharing should apply to our vehicles.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, host of this week’s Copyright Week, says copyright policy “should foster the freedom to truly own your own stuff: to tinker with it, repair it, reuse it, recycle it, read or watch or launch it on any device, lend it, and then give it away (or re-sell it) when you’re done.” Copyright Week is designed to celebrate and recognize the need for fair and flexible copyright laws, and their impact on culture and our economy.

The Copyright Office’s wrong-headed ruling on DCMA is neither fair nor flexible and will hurt an industry of manufacturers, retailers and installers whom consumers trust to provide technology solutions and installations in their cars.

While the Copyright Office’s ruling provides an exception for consumers who try on their own to upgrade their cars’ infotainment systems or add backup cameras, it offers no exception for consumers who want to engage a trained third party to do it for them.

The Copyright Office’s ruling effectively bars third parties from installing equipment, unless they first get permission from a car company. This decision could have serious unintended consequences — negatively affecting cars’ performance and safety, inhibiting consumers’ ability to employ all technology has to offer and eliminating American jobs.

Encouraging untrained consumers to reverse-engineer their cars just to install their products of choice is simply illogical. Installing, say, a six-disc CD changer is not the same as installing aftermarket cruise control. Discouraging the use of independent, trained servicers and installers who aren’t part of the auto manufacturer’s selected dealer network undermines the aftermarket-installation business, an established industry that employs more than 11,000 Americans.

More than 3,500 professionals are qualified for jobs at various levels through the Mobile Electronics Certification Program (MECP), which certifies skilled professionals who install aftermarket electronics. MECP offers a career path for those interested in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, but do not necessarily want to pursue a four-year degree.

Our cars ­— and the cars around us — can benefit enormously from innovative aftermarket safety features, such as backup cameras, Bluetooth hands-free technology and lane-departure systems.

The average car on the road today is 11 years old. That’s an immense amount of time, when you consider the acceleration and breadth of in-car tech innovations during that period. This ruling, if not overturned, will harm all of us who want innovative technology features that can enhance the safe use of automobiles, but do not want to purchase an entirely new car.

More, the Copyright Office’s ruling, which is 81 pages long, is rife with impenetrable bureaucratese. For example, the ruling incorrectly reasons that gaining access to a car’s entertainment system must be prevented to stop an owner from adding copyright-infringing material. But the Supreme Court’s 1984 Betamax decision in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios Inc. explicitly established otherwise.

It is lawful to sell consumers a device that can store content, whether the content is infringing or not. That landmark ruling paved the way for an explosion of technological innovations we take for granted today – MP3 players, iPods, DVRs and more – products that might otherwise not exist had the high court ruled the other way.

In the wake of the Copyright Office’s misguided ruling, Congress needs to clarify that the DMCA was never intended to be an industrial-protection law. Instead, DMCA must be limited to the intended objective of protecting expressive content from access for the purpose of making infringing copies.

Car owners should be able to update their cars as they see fit – provided their changes comply with safety standards. And the best way to ensure safe, reliable, after-market installation is to work with – not alienate – certified tech professionals.

GaryShapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling booksNinja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of theWorld’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the AmericanDream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro