Do You Really Own Your Car? GM, John Deere Say "No"

April 30, 2015

When it comes to cars, there are plenty of reasons to buy instead of lease.

For starters, when we buy, we're making a capital investment. Though that investment will depreciate over time, we'll still get a chunk of our money back. Also, even in the increasingly rent-friendly, ridesharing economy, pride of ownership remains a force to be reckoned with. 

According to Wired, however, some companies believe that people never truly buy cars. In their opinion, consumers simply rent vehicles -- or at least parts of them -- for extended periods of time. Ultimately, those parts remain the property of the manufacturer.

How is that possible? It all comes down to software, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the rights that the DMCA affords manufacturers and their goods.

General Motors, for example, says that it retains ownership of the software that helps run its vehicles. Folks who own GM cars and trucks can tinker and tune all they like, but they're not allowed to touch the software. They don't own GM's code like they own the tires, steering wheel, or engine.

John Deere feels the same way. That's put many farmers in a bind, because they can't afford the cost of diagnostic software necessary to repair their expensive, high-tech harvesters. As author Kyle Wiens puts it, "Old MacDonald has a tractor, but he owns a massive barn ornament, because the manufacturer holds the rights to the programming that makes it run."

MOTORS, MOBILE PHONES, AND THE RIGHT TO REPAIR

Of course, this kind of issue isn't limited to cars. Anyone who's ever owned an Apple product knows that you can't modify its operating software -- not without invalidating the warranty or, in some cases, bricking the device. 

However, you could argue that there's a substantial difference between a $500 handset that's rendered largely obsolete in two or three years and a piece of machinery that can cost well over $100,000 and is meant to last two or three decades (if not longer).

In other words, there may -- may -- be some merit to the argument that mobile phone software shouldn't be touched because the device that uses it is semi-disposable. In that view, users shouldn't be able to tinker with the phone's software because the device is meant to be replaced as next-gen software rolls out. (It's worth noting that Google and Android don't see things this way, though.) A vehicle, on the other hand, is meant for a long life and needs to be maintained. That means tweaking the software now and then.

A slightly more persuasive argument would be that phones are computers. Running software is their primary function. Maintaining the integrity of that software is crucial if the phones are to continue running as intended. 

Vehicles, however, are primarily mechanical devices (for now, anyway). The software underlying them is meant to support their primary function of transporting people and objects from place to place. So, it would be reasonable to allow users access to that software for repairs.

IF YOU THINK THINGS ARE BAD NOW...

Of course, if you keep up with car news, you can see trouble ahead. The nature of vehicles is changing rapidly, with computers and software playing an increasingly central role. By the time that fully autonomous vehicles become available, it may be very, very difficult to distinguish between hardware and software.

Which raises numerous questions, including:

1. If software is central, and if it remains the property of the automaker, will car ownership become a thing of the past? (Maybe.)

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