California residents may not realize that a law designed to stop people from pirating music and movies made it possible for Volkswagen's emission cheating scandal to occur. However, the U.S. Copyright Office may soon change that.
Volkswagen hid software in 10 million "clean diesel" cars that allowed them to produce passing grades on emissions tests but revert to illegal levels of emissions while driving on roadways. Fooling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is not easy, but the German automaker was able to pull off its scam because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Section 12 of the DMCA makes it illegal to hack the digital locks manufacturers place on their products. The law, which was established in 1998, was intended to stop people from copying CDs and DVDs, but it isn't platform specific. It applies to all digital programming, including the software on phones, appliances and cars.
Because of the DMCA, owners, researchers and regulators were not allowed to break the encryption on Volkswagen's engine control unit to see what it was up to. This allowed the car company to sell 500,000 emissions-cheating vehicles to unsuspecting Americans.
Volkswagen is hardly alone. Ford got caught rigging software on Econovans in the 1990s, and LG put cheating software in energy-efficient refrigerators in 2010. The U.S. Copyright Office will soon decide whether cars will be excepted from Section 1201. Congress is also working on two bills that could make it easier for appropriate parties, such as those conducting research or repairs, to sidestep the law.
Copyright infringement laws are complex. California entrepreneurs in need of copyright protection may benefit by consulting with an attorney who has experience with these types of intellectual property matters.