09 June, 2015

Conflicted Owners - Intellectual Property Law and Ownership of Property

Saying something is truly yours is a rare thing these days, especially with the seemingly impossible future of house ownership in a lot of cities (especially for us here in London), and people often derive a huge sense of achievement and gratification from the fact that they've bought something and it is finally theirs to keep. Intellectual property law has rarely concerned itself with the ownership of physical things, but protects the underlying works rather than the tangible object itself, with the exception of counterfeit goods, for example. That said, there often can be confusion among the less IP-savvy of us with this distinction, but after a recent news article this misconception might not be too far off anymore. This begs the question: can intellectual property law interfere with your ownership of your things?

In a recent letter to the US Copyright office, John Deere, one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural, construction and forestry equipment, potentially put in doubt the ownership of individual's or companies in those fields over the equipment they have purchased. John Deere's comments come in the wake of an inquiry into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, potentially allowing for the circumvention of technological measures, currently prevented under 17 USC 1201, under certain classes, for example software relating to cars or other vehicles or equipment. This exemption would allow for the breaking of software protection to aid in the diagnosis and repair of vehicles using that software, especially when it comes to non-licensed, cheaper mechanics than those licensed by John Deere, or even the modification of said software for your own purposes.

John Deere's position regarding the proposed changes is quite strong: "Circumvention of the TMPs for Class 21 will make it possible for pirates, third-party software developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software designed by leading vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers". Admittedly, allowing for tinkering and free access to software does provide risks (malfunctioning of the vehicle etc.), but allowing for cheaper maintenance and possible customization potentially outweighs those issues. As for piracy, traditional copyright would still protect the software from being used by competitors or 'pirates', since the exception would only apply to repair, modification and improvements and not misappropriation or its blatant copying.

Brick was trying to find the software on his car, but couldn't
How does copyright impact, at least in John Deere's argument, ownership of your vehicle? Their argument is that "[a] vehicle owner does not acquire copyrights for software in the vehicle, and cannot properly be considered an "owner" of the vehicle software". From a plain understanding of copyright law, the argument runs true; when you purchase a piece of software, you don't 'own' the software itself per say, but garner a licence to use that software. Even with that in mind, the end-user does, and should, have rights in their use of the software, albeit not be allowed to make illegal copies of it and distribute it as they wish. John Deere acknowledge this: "...the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle", which is true, at least in terms of the software. One could say it prevents the proper use of the car or its auxiliary uses (should the software fail or be irreparable due to age or lack of repair facilities), but one has to remember to distinguish ownership of the tangible from the intangible. Your car is still your car; the software isn't.

The United Kingdom does not have a similar set of broad protective measures against the circumvention of technological protection, although section 296 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 does prevent an individual from using devices to circumvent such protections (for example using 'mod-chips' to play illegal copies of video games on their consoles). Software is very much protected in the UK under copyright (more on which can be found here), and alleged misuses of vehicle software would very much be protectable against.

Copyright is a complex beast, and it does prevent one from enjoying the things you buy in the manner than some would hope to (i.e. as if they own the right to distribute the content etc.), but does not prevent you from using it in a legitimate, allowed fashion. However, do other IP rights prevent you from using your hard-earned items?

Trademarks apply to the sale of products, aiming to identify those of a certain quality or pedigree, and don't lend themselves well to the interference of ownership. Once you buy a bottle of Coca-Cola (or any brand, per your preference), the company cannot prevent you from using it to trick your siblings, or to make a mess; qualities it would possibly not enjoy associating with its brand. There has been an instance where Deadmau5, a popular electronic music producer, was told by Ferrari to remove unwarranted modifications to his Ferrari Spyder (such as changing the logo to a jumping cat one), and even though, on the face of it, it can seem like an interference with his right to use his own property, one could say the issue was probably more contractual than IP related.

Patents, similarly to trademarks, only really apply in a commercial context, and don't provide an avenue through which a patented item could be prevented from being used in a particular way. Even if your vacuum cleaner has a patented method of collecting refuse, you can still vacuum your pets without a worry or fear of interference from your vacuum brand. Any illegal copying or misuse of patented material would clearly be covered, which steps beyond the bounds of everyday use of said items.

That being said, John Deere and the other parties rallying against an exception to circumvent car software are not, as the article cited here would say, interfering with your ownership of your own items or seeking to do so. The protection of your software has been a long-standing ability within the world of IP, and their aim is not to prevent you from using your tractor that you have rightfully purchased. Whether the exception is introduced or not remains to be seen, but this writer would like to assure you your tractor is still very much yours to keep, at least for now.

Source: Wired

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