Copyright exemption handed out for car security research

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The Librarian of Congress on Tuesday clarified that researchers can tinker with software embedded in cars to investigate security flaws without running afoul of copyright law. 

The decision was handed down from the Copyright Office as part of a triennial review that exempts certain activity from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), a section of which bars people from bypassing technologies that protect copyrighted work. 

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Advocates pushing for the exemption charged that current copyright law has the potential to chill independent research into security flaws at a time when vulnerabilities are more prevalent than ever. They also say current law might have prevented researchers from finding Volkswagen's deceptive emissions software earlier. 

"We are pleased that analysts will now be able to examine the software in the cars we drive without facing legal threats from car manufacturers and that the Librarian has acted to promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket and protect the long tradition of vehicle owners tinkering with their cars and tractors," said Kit Walsh, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which pushed for the exemption.  

The exemption was opposed by a number of federal regulators and car manufacturers.  

The research carve out for cars was one of a few dozen exemptions the agency outlined in an 81-page document released Tuesday. Other exemptions allowed tinkering with software in implanted medical devices and other devices that are designed primarily for consumers. 

The copyright exemptions do not give the green light for researchers to go around other laws that might apply, such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or other federal regulations.

Those exemptions will be delayed for a year to allow the federal government and state agencies to prepare for the impact. 

"The year-long delay in implementing the exemptions ... is disappointing and unjustified," Walsh added.  

The section of copyright law that bars users to bypass protective technologies was written into the law as a backstop against infringement. It was aimed at building digital walls to discourage the distribution of pirated content, such as movies and music. 

But as technology has evolved, more and more devices that have nothing to do with creative content appear to fall within those copyright protections. That has put more pressure on the Copyright Office every three years to map out exemptions. 

"The fact remains that no matter how many exemptions are granted, the process for granting exemptions to the DMCA is broken," said Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenPuerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate Senate panel delays email privacy vote amid concerns Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns MORE (D-Ore.), who has pushed legislation to reform the process. "For example, a review every three years simply does not keep up with the pace of innovation and places burdens on users who have to repeatedly ask permission for the same activity."

The copyright protections previously prevented customers from unlocking their mobile phones from a wireless carrier, spurring an online petition that eventually pushed Congress to pass a permanent exemption. 

Those unlocking exemptions apply to cellphones, tablets, mobile hotspots and smart watches, according to Tuesday's rule.

The rule also clarifies that customers can "jailbreak" their smartphones, tablets and smart TVs. That process allows customers to use alternate operating systems on their device rather than only the one approved by the manufacturer.

The exemptions also apply to video game users who want to continue to play after the game maker has abandoned the software that allows the game to run.