7

I recently bought a product, let's say a car, with limitations intentionally introduced to the design, for example an electronic speed limiter. Being a bit of a tinkerer, I messed with my model until I figured out how to remove this limitation (i.e. remove the electronic speed limiter). If I were to publish this information online, telling other people how to modify their models, would it be legal?

As another example, let's say I figured out how to raise the power on a brand-name microwave, or increase the cooking speed of a rice cooker. Provided the end result isn't in violation of any particular safety laws (and assume for the purpose that they do not), can I legally publish the information of how to do so?

  • Manipulating safety features, especially on cars, can lead to the item failing to qualify to the safety standards and breech laws or insurance contracts this way. This might actually qualify for a question of its own! – Trish Aug 9 '18 at 11:30
  • Are you doing hardware or software changes? The speed limiter in a car is almost certainly going to be software, not hardware. I don't know about the microwave or rice cooker (although I will point out that running more power than expected through an electrical appliance may not be safe). For software, you should consider the DMCA in the United States, and in general what laws were made to satisfy the WIPO treaty. – David Thornley Dec 18 '18 at 22:44
2

In my opinion, you are totally free to publish the information.

There are two areas of law that can be cosidered - private and public law.

In the private law area, you can be liable for revealing trade secrets, but only if you agreed to keep them by a contract. Trade secrets do not exist by themselves (there are minor exceptions, eg. in competition law, but those do not concern us), they must be protected by contracts. Another private limitations, like libel laws, won't apply here. This is not uncommon, but not in cars - you can find clauses like these in software license agreements.

Then there is the public area. Is there any regulation, any policy of the state, that prevents you from publishing it? I am not aware you whole legal code of your state, but I doubt there is. It would be a harsh limitation of freedom of speech. Even if the modification could lead to illegal effect (like, modifying toy weapon to kill by rising its power...) it would be only illegal under very rare circumstances.

To conclude it - freedom of speech can be limited only if there is sufficient public interest to do so, and I don't see any.

-1

I think it depends on whether you can be accused of revealing trade secrets or violating patents, as this kind of thing usually turns into an intellectual property battle.

Generally, you'd be protected from trade secret litigation if it can be shown that you discovered your secret modification on your own, and that you weren't granted access to any secret information by the owner of the product's intellectual property or any partners, employees, contractors, etc. of that owner. Patent infringement is mostly a problem if you're either making money off of the information, which you definitely don't want to do, or if it can be proven you're decreasing the value of their intellectual property.

In your car example, if the original company makes money by offering an option to remove that "electronic limiter" and you're showing people how to do it for free, you're in trouble. Otherwise, your obvious defense is that by offering people more options on what to do with their product, you may in fact be increasing the value of their intellectual property.

This isn't my branch of law, but if you're not making any money off of it, you're not getting too much visibility of your "published information" and you're not stopping people from paying the original company to get the same modification, you're probably safe. If in doubt, contact a lawyer.

  • 3
    How might the DMCA factor in to this, given that so many things use computers these days? – mikeazo Dec 11 '17 at 17:42
  • 4
    It is not a violation of trade secret law to reverse engineer the secret from the trade secret owner's product. Patents are publicly available information so disclosing them is fine, it is using someone else's patent, not thwarting it that is illegal. You are not in trouble for teaching people to deactivate a patented device as claimed by Tim. DMCA might be a factor in some cases, however. – ohwilleke Dec 12 '17 at 18:18
  • Would "illegal" in the question be too strong a word? One might be liable to civil suit without violating the law. For example if the information published included copyrighted material (like copyrighted code to implement higher-speed regulator) it seems one might have liability without violating a law. – Burt_Harris Dec 15 '18 at 2:35
  • Re "...if it can be proven you're decreasing the value of their intellectual property.": this seems absurd, since virtually all good GPL or open source workalike software would be "guilty" of decreasing the value of the corresponding closed source competition. – agc Mar 28 at 5:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.