Friday, 24 April 2015

Right to repair a four-wheeled computer

According to this story in WIRED (hat-tip to Warwick Rothnie for posting it on Facebook) John Deere and General Motors are trying to change the very idea of ownership, of tractors and cars at any rate. Actually, personal leasing plans in the motor sector (and, no doubt, similar arrangements in the agricultural machinery sector) have already years ago changed the ownership equation, but in a rather different and direct way than what is described here.

The simple fact is that, because vehicles rely increasingly on software to operate them, the owner of the hardware is beholden to the owner of the copyright in the software running on it. As with computers, so with tractors and cars. To characterise this as the manufacturer retaining ownership of the hardware is at best hyperbole, at worst downright wrong. But it nevertheless appears to pose problems for owners in the USA.

Would it happen here? I think not. First, an owner deprived of the ability to repair his or her car or tractor (or anything else) would be able to refer to the House of Lords decision in that great case, British Leyland Motor Corp & Ors v Armstrong Patents Company Ltd & Ors [1986] UKHL 7 (27 February 1986) where their Lordships (or at least a majority of them) held that the owner of a motor car had the right to repair it as economically as possible, and that to use intellectual property rights to thwart the owner was a derogation from grant which the courts would refuse to uphold. And since 1986, the software directive has introduced several provisions (in particular section 50A and 50C of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988) to permit "reverse engineering" of software and the fixing of problems with it. So, between those two pieces of law, one judge-made and the other statutory, I don't see much to worry about: except, of course, for the fact that if a large multinational leans on an individual car-owner or farmer there is a good chance that they will prevail regardless of the merits of their legal case.

For more see, Automakers to gearheads: Stop repairing cars

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