Intellectual Property, Dieselgate, and Volkswagen

25 09 2015
VW Interior Photo by Ralf Roletschek Taken from Wikimedia Commons

VW Interior Photo by
Ralf Roletschek
Taken from Wikimedia Commons

One dimension of the Volkswagen scandal that hasn’t received enough attention is the role of Intellectual Property rights in enabling VW to get away with cheating for so long. According to Vox’s admirably clear explainer of the scandal,

Meanwhile, the VW scandal raises another issue surrounding car regulations, as Alex Davies explains at Wired. Modern-day cars feature complex computer systems and software. And, right now, this software is protected under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act — it’s illegal to fiddle with the software. The ostensible rationale is to make it harder for consumers to tamper with emissions controls. But these protections also make it harder for independent researchers to scrutinize that code and identify problems. Some experts have proposed DMCA exemptions to allow researchers to test and evaluate these engines, but so far automakers and the EPA have resisted this. Presumably, if those exemptions had existed, Volkswagen’s deception might have been caught sooner.

For more about the role of excessively strong Intellectual Property rights in contributing to Dieselgate, see reports in Scientific American, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. and Autoblog.

This scandal should make consumers realise that a substantial portion of the purchase price of a car is for the software inside it. (Think about it– until my lifetime software wasn’t protected by IP laws). Perhaps the scandal will cause citizens to think more critically about our existing Intellectual Property regime.

Financial Times YouTube channel recently carried a video about the implications for firm strategy of the increasing importance of IT in the automotive sector. It’s certainly worth checking out.