Do you own the software, or just a license to own the software? That’s the question currently being posted to the U.S. Copyright office by manufacturers and lobbyists who are fighting to prevent innovators from changing the way a vehicle’s computer works.

Hard-hitter companies John Deere and GM are leading the charge in a series of hearings before the U.S. Copyright Office, claiming that people who buy cars and other vehicles controlled by sophisticated computers own them subject to an “implied license,” meaning that because the vehicles can’t run without the software that controls the computers, consumers can’t own the software outright.

From the Consumerist:

GM’s claim is all about copyright and software code, and it’s the same claim John Deere is making about their tractors. The TL;DR version of the argument goes something like this:

  • Cars work because software tells all the parts how to operate
  • The software that tells all the parts to operate is customized code
  • That code is subject to copyright
  • GM owns the copyright on that code and that software
  • A modern car cannot run without that software; it is integral to all systems
  • Therefore, the purchase or use of that car is a licensing agreement
  • And since it is subject to a licensing agreement, GM is the owner and can allow/disallow certain uses or access.
  • The U.S. Copyright Office is currently holding a series of hearings on whether or not anyone other than the manufacturer of a car has a right to tinker with that car’s copyrighted software. And with the way modern design goes, that basically means with the car, at all.

    John Deere’s claims go further into detail:

    Thanks to DMCA 1201, John Deere claims it still owns the tractor you thought you bought from it. Instead, John Deere claims you’re really just licensing that tractor:

    In the absence of an express written license in conjunction with the purchase of the vehicle, the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle, subject to any warranty limitations, disclaimers or other contractual limitation in the sales contract or documentation.

    How nice of John Deere to say that your ability to operate the vehicle is really subject to the “implied license” it granted you.

    This idea doesn’t just apply to innovators who want to sell a product or promote their “jailbreaking” skills; if the Copyright Offices sides with the manufacturers, the ruling will apply to tech junkies who seek to “jailbreak” their devices to check for additional functionality, possibilities for increased functionality, and safety issues.

    The hearings started this week, and we expect to hear something by July. We’ll keep you posted as this latest battle for property rights progresses.

    You can read the manufacturers’ claims here.