Researchers might have been able to expose the recent emissions scandal by Volkswagen sooner if they hadn’t been stopped by copyright protection laws.
Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, independent researchers are forbidden from examining the codes that control the function of a vehicle unless they have permission from the manufacturer. While this protects automotive companies from having their technology stolen by other companies, it also makes things difficult for people to locate problems in the vehicles in terms of safety or security.
Car manufacturers such as Volkswagen can use the DMCA to their advantage. With copyright laws on their side, they are able to hide their corner-cutting practices. Since independent researchers are not able to examine the codes of a vehicle, they are unable to see things like how much pollution the vehicles generate.
Volkswagen knew this when it developed more than 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide that were equipped with a cheating device that hid the amount of pollution that its vehicles generated. While inspectors thought that the vehicles were compliant with standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they were actually generating pollution in excess of forty times the allowable amount.
Shockingly, the EPA asked the Copyright Office to oppose exemptions to current copyright laws for research purposes. The EPA wanted these laws to remain in place in order to prevent practices concerning the modification of vehicles. Most of such modifications have nothing to do with pollution levels or the environment. Basically, the EPA is undermining its own ability to regulate vehicles.
While copyright laws are important for ensuring fair competition between companies, they should not prevent independent researchers from trying to understand exactly how a device functions and whether or not that device is safe. Had researchers been able to examine the diesel engines from Volkswagen, this recent discovery could have been made years ago.
As for Volkswagen, the German company has lost nearly $26 billion in market value since word of the scandal leaked out to the public. Martin Winterkorn stepped down as the company’s CEO, and has since been replaced by Porsche CEO Matthias Mueller. Germany recently announced that it is opening a criminal investigation against Winterkorn. The car company has a long road ahead in order to repair its tarnished image and regain the trust of the public.