Right-to-Repair Battle Heats Up: Can Altering Motorcycle Software Cause Legal Problems?

Right-to-Repair Battle Heats Up: Can Altering Motorcycle Software Cause Legal Problems?

Could altering your motorcycle software cause legal problems? Truth is, it already has…

In March of last year, we reported on the legal battle over a vehicle owner’s right to have access to and repair or alter the computer code that makes their car, truck, tractor, motorcycle, you-name-it work.

That dealt with the potential for changes in the federal copyright law, specifically, the anti-circumvention prohibition in Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), under which owners, non-manufacturer approved service technicians or anyone but the manufacturer’s own designated technicians are prohibited to view, alter or update the computer software or codes that control engine and other vehicle operations including performance, safety, and emissions criteria.

Vehicle manufacturers argue that allowing end-users (owners and/or the technicians or mechanics they may hire) to access, repair, or modify the computer code in key operating systems of the vehicles such as EFI fuel mapping, ignition, stability control, ABS or other systems violates the federal DMCA and that proposals to modify the law to affirm the consumer’s right to repair should not be allowed.

Can Altering Motorcycle Software Cause Legal Problems?

In the case of federal law, such motorcycle software modifications done without the permission of the manufacturer—which is the copyright holder—are asserted as being a copyright infringement, since the computer code in the vehicles has been registered for protection under federal copyright law.

The battle is also being waged at the state level. In November 2020, voters in the state of Massachusetts passed a referendum in support of an updated version of that state’s 2013 law affirming the consumer’s right-to-repair.

The new version of the law would give consumers access to the same vehicle data that is transmitted remotely or wirelessly, which allows manufacturers to make upgrades, changes, or modifications to the operating software without the vehicle having to be brought to a dealer for service.

Since the passage of the referendum (by a three-to-one margin), the manufacturers have brought suit in federal court seeking to block implementation. In that action, the point is not copyright infringement, but potential violations of federal motor vehicle emissions standards.

Filings from a manufacturer trade group that brought the action argue that the changes to the law would require manufacturers to deactivate cybersecurity systems on vehicles necessary to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act and that in cases of conflict between state and federal law, the federal law pre-empts any state law.

Manufacturers also contend that inactivation of the cybersecurity features would allow threat-actors (hackers) to even assume control of vehicle operating systems that normally would be under the exclusive control of the owner.

When the case in Massachusetts will be concluded is not known, nor can the outcome be predicted at this point, but it may have broader implications in other states and even at the federal level. Stay with Ultimate Motorcycling for more on future developments that could have implications for who and how electronic systems on that ride of yours can—or can not—be modified or repaired.