For at least three more years, you can safely avoid a $500,000 fine and five-year prison sentence for working on your own vehicle.

Phew. Close one, folks.

The U.S. Copyright Office this week granted an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), making it legal (even though you probably didn’t know it wasn’t) to diagnose, repair, or modify your vehicle with performance chips and tuners.

This issue came to light last April when automakers and farm equipment manufacturers were lobbying the federal government to protect on-board automotive computers as the intellectual property of the vehicle manufacturers—effectively stripping car owners of the rights to repair or upgrade modern, software-controlled vehicles.

innova obd scan tool used on a late model engine

Hemmings summed it up perfectly:

“So, while you may own the car, the actual physical components of the ECU, the throttle body, the fuel injectors, the wires and everything else associated with the car, you don’t own the software. And, under the DMCA, attempting to undermine any portion of that system may be considered a violation of the law, even if all you want is to smooth out a rough idle or, say, open up the top end of the engine at the track.

“But, as anyone who has ever really ‘gone under the hood’ and tried his hand at diagnosing or modifying a modern car, the right way to do it involves getting at that code. Let’s take that water pump for instance. If you’ve modified your engine, you may want to beef up the cooling, but modifying the software to talk to the ECU-controlled, on-demand electric water pump was a big no-no, legally speaking, before this exemption.”

For a more thorough explanation of how and why this all came to be, you can see the full Hemmings story here.

Author: Matt Griswold

After a 10-year newspaper journalism career, Matt Griswold spent another decade writing about the automotive aftermarket and motorsports. He was part of the original OnAllCylinders editorial team when it launched in 2012.