Cornell University

Communication Colloquium Series: Software-Embedded Cars at the Intersection of Intellectual and Personal Property, and the Way Forward

Monday, November 18, 2019 at 1:30pm to 2:45pm

Mann Library, 102
Cornell University Mann Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

In 2015, the Copyright Office was asked to rule on a question that seemed outlandish to many outside observers: should copyright apply to cars? The question came up as an unintended consequence of an arcane section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Section 1201. Originally written to keep content pirates from illegally copying DVDs and CDs, this section was written broadly enough that it could be interpreted as applying to any device running software – and, nowadays, this includes cars. Seeing the DMCA as a possible threat to their ability to repair, maintain, and modify their vehicles, in 2015 a coalition of right to repair advocates, digital rights activists, car hobbyist organizations and farmers came together to fight for vehicles to be exempted from this rule.

This talk will explore the intersection of intellectual and personal property regimes, particularly as they apply to software-embedded automotive vehicles. Specifically, this presentation asks, what legal principles and cultural assumptions are behind the way the law adjudicates this intersection, and where does this attempt at adjudication fall short? By analyzing the 2015 round of DMCA Section 1201 exemptions, I conclude that the conflict between intellectual and personal property legal thinking in the US reveals some of the inherent tensions within contemporary neoliberalism – and that solving this conflict will require moving beyond neoliberalism and considering more communal, environmentally oriented ways of thinking about ownership.



MC Forelle is a Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow, the first ever to be based at Cornell Tech in New York City. There, she studies the legal and technical obstacles faced by users, tinkerers, and repair communities working to repair, maintain, and modify software-embedded consumer technologies. Her work broadly examines the intersection of law, technology, and culture, with particular interests in materiality, sustainability, and practices of resistance and change.

She graduated from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2019, where her dissertation utilized a multimethod qualitative approach to examine how copyright presents a legal challenge to car owners and mechanics attempting to do their own repairs, and how those communities responded to that challenge. She has an MA in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University, and a BS in Film, TV, and Radio from Boston University. Her past work has explored the world of credit default swaps in finance, interactive music videos online, and policies of diversity ownership in broadcast media. Born in Venezuela, she now lives in Brooklyn with her partner, kid, and dog named Dr. Waffles.

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Joanna Alario

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Dr. MC Forelle

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