Illegal engine management?
August 21, 2006 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Who owns the ECU data in my car?

I own a Mitsubishi Evolution. I hired a tuner to modify the fuel and timing maps in the car, on a dyno. (He did a terrible job- one that might have cost me my engine.) I emailed a copy of the data to a knowledgable friend, and posted a few of the worst parts of it to an Evo forum. Some folks are saying that the tuner owns the data they created, and I say it's either a work for hire or uncopyrightable data. Who's right?
posted by wzcx to Law & Government (15 answers total)

Did you sign any agreement that said you would not post the data anywhere else?

Because it's not published, it can't be copyrighted... He would have to trademark or patent the data otherwise.

So, guessing that he didn't trademark or patent the data, the real question is whether or not you entered into an agreement NOT to publish the data. If you didn't, its work-for-hire.

My understanding is that if you want something kept a trade secret, you must have an agreement the customer signs that says "I won't publish this".
posted by hatsix at 11:54 AM on August 21, 2006


A custom map is a modification to existing code in your ECU. Someone reverse-engineered the code, and your amateur "tuner" friend probably used ecutek or something similar to write those modifications back to your ECU.

Unless your tuner rewrote all of the ECU code himself, I think you're talking about changing some data values (boost maps, timing, fuel maps) and anyone who thinks that data is copywritable is talkin out their neck.

You might also consider the remote possibility that you did something dumb yourself. You modified your car to go faster. You assume some risk for the thinner safety margin. Horsepower is not free. ymmv.
posted by freq at 11:59 AM on August 21, 2006

Response by poster: Good clarifying question. I signed nothing at all about IP or publishing.
posted by wzcx at 11:59 AM on August 21, 2006

Because it's not published, it can't be copyrighted

This is not true. In the United States, a work is automatically under copyright as soon as it is "fixed in a tangible medium." It does not have to be published.1

(I don't know the answer to the original question, but I wanted to correct this misperception.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:59 AM on August 21, 2006

Because it's not published, it can't be copyrighted... He would have to trademark or patent the data otherwise.

My understanding is that if you want something kept a trade secret, you must have an agreement the customer signs that says "I won't publish this".

What on earth are you talking about? If you do not have knowledge/expertise in a particular area why respond?
posted by anathema at 12:01 PM on August 21, 2006

More details regarding the tuner's process and what was actually created by the tuner is needed before the threshold question of copyrightability can be answered.
posted by anathema at 12:08 PM on August 21, 2006

From the same page footnote-linked above:

What is an original work? This is intentionally vague, and can ultimately only be decided in court. It is easiest to give examples of things that are not original: facts, like the population of Mexico City...

If these are facts, then, they're automatically not under copyright, tangible media be damned.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 12:18 PM on August 21, 2006

Response by poster: Freq: you may assume that I've had lots of 'good advice' in the safety area! That's why I've spent 10x the price of the dyno time on datalogging, oxygen sensors, etc. If you're interested in learning more about the software and hardware used to tune the car, have a look here.

DevilsAdvocate: I should have mentioned that I am curious as to whether the modified maps (which are nothing more than grids or lists of numbers) fall under the 'list of facts' area that seems to be an exception to copyrightability.

Anathema: Here is an example of the data changed. Apologies for horrible, horrible jpeg compression. The tuner downloaded the stock maps from the car, edited them, and re-uploaded into the ECU. Changes were made in steps, with dyno runs to confirm increased power and safe air/fuel ratios in between modifications.
posted by wzcx at 12:20 PM on August 21, 2006

IANAL but I'd guess this falls under the status of a derivative work since it's just a timing map modification and not a completely original piece of ECU software. A common analogy would be a firmware hack on your iPod or router.

Assuming it's considered a significant enough modification of the existing software to meet the US requirements of a copyrightable derivative work, the tuner could at most copyright the modification itself only and probably not the non-modified portion of the ECU software and certainly not the original ECU software itself. Modification aside, the original ECU software copyright would still be held by Mitsubishi and/or the ECU software developer whom it was licensed from, if there was one to begin with.

Irregardless, your tuner doesn't need a copyright to sell the ECU modification. The trouble and expense to upgrade the ECU for the average consumer combined with the trouble and expense that would be required for a tuner to enforce a copyright completely outweighs any benefit the tuner would gain by pursuing a copyright. In this regard, much of the tuning industry operates similar to the food industry where copyright and subsequent enforcement of recipes is unheard of.
posted by junesix at 1:05 PM on August 21, 2006

Response by poster: But does a tuner have the legal right to prevent (not that they could enforce) sharing of the modifications?
posted by wzcx at 1:20 PM on August 21, 2006

I'm pretty sure *copyright* law does not protect said tuner, though IANALE. Contract law might, but the OP said his contract doesn't say that.

I'd just sit and wait until the tuner's lawyer files the suit, myself.

Oh, and 'irregardless' isn't a word. :-)
posted by baylink at 1:27 PM on August 21, 2006

Best answer: I don't know anything about ECU data and timing maps, but one factor that would be taken into account in determining whether the tuner's changes are copyrightable or not would be how much creativity was involved in making the changes. If he just took the original grid, say, and doubled every number in it, I doubt that would be copyrightable. If he made individual tweaks to many of the numbers in that grid, it may well be copyrightable.

On the "facts/numbers can't be copyrighted" point: individual facts or numbers can't be copyrighted, but collections of facts or number can be, if there was a creative step involved in putting together the collection. (The population of Mexico City is not copyrightable; the population of the twenty largest cities in North America is probably not copyrightable; the population of my favorite twenty cities in North America is.)

I don't think it's a work for hire, because I as understand it, a work for hire only applies to regular employees. The tuner is not your employee, only your contractor, so unless the contract said that you get the copyright, the copyright remains with him, if there is a copyright at all.

OTOH, if it's just that people on the Evo forum are saying that you shouldn't have posted the data because it belongs to the tuner, I would point to the fact that you "posted a few of the worst parts of it," not the whole thing, and claim that it's permissible under fair use. Whether that's actually true or not would depend on just how much you posted, as well as several other factors, but if you're just trying to win an academic debate on the forum, rather than actually mounting a legal defense of the posting (apparently unlikely to be necessary, based on other comments here), it's a good position to take.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:56 PM on August 21, 2006

Re: What on earth are you talking about? If you do not have knowledge/expertise in a particular area why respond?

I apologize that I don't have expertise in Law... Though I do have experience with contracts and what needs to be included in a contract to make sure a client cannot use the data you provide for purposes other than YOUR intended purpose. (Note, I didn't write the contracts, merely had them explained to me by someone who WAS an expert)

I would have to say that DevilsAdvocate's response (FairUse posting a portion of the code) would be a good way to get the forum members off your back.

For the record, if you signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, the code could be considered a Trade Secret, as it would definitely fall into several of these categories: formula, practice, process, design, instrument, pattern, or compilation of information.
Trade Secrets are aimed at employees, but they apply to anyone who has signed an NDA (for example, experts evaluating the authenticity of an experiment, where no money exchanges hands)
posted by hatsix at 3:50 PM on August 21, 2006

baylink: gah, I always do that. Funny how the brain is persistent in wiring "irrespective" and "regardless" together despite the number of times I've been reminded. Maybe I need to begin looking into more aggressive measures like electroshock therapy or something...
posted by junesix at 3:59 PM on August 21, 2006

Nah, junesix, just have the OP's tuner do some work on your brain...
posted by baylink at 7:20 PM on August 21, 2006

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