Is Autonomous Car Data Subject to Copyright?

Autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, are getting conceptually closer to smart gadgets, rather than mere means of transportation. Such vehicles are equipped with a multitude of sensor arrays, such as LIDARs, conventional radars, cameras, accelerometers, and thermometers. Over a single ride to work your smart car would generate an exhaustive log featuring every bump on the road, every brake check, and every turn, bundled with geolocation data and weather reports. Within our praised data-driven economy such data simply couldn’t remain outside of someone’s control, so the respective regulators began thinking about the rules for the game.

Recently, the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs voted down an amendment that would have made it impossible to make telemetric data from an autonomous vehicle subject to copyright. This has outraged media and certain users. But is there an actual reason for being that alarmed?

EU Can’t Let Go of Copyright Issues?

The European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) summed up its perspective on the matter of autonomous vehicles in a draft opinion for the Committee on Transport (TRAN) and Tourism, emphasizing the topics such as civil liability, data protection, and access to the data generated by autonomous cars. Subsequently Max Andersson, member of the Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs, proposed several amendments to the draft opinion, including one specifically addressing the possibility of copyright protection of the autonomous cars data.

“Data generated during autonomous transport are automatically generated and are by nature not creative, thus making copyright protection or the right on databases inapplicable,” reads Andersson’s proposal.

On October 10th, the Legal Affairs Committee voted against this amendment, essentially opening the possibility for the captured data to be subject to copyright legislation. The vote results alarmed the media about the widening scope of copyright law. There are certain allegations that the center-right EPP politicians who blocked the amendment from passing don’t believe that “[the] data belongs to the owner of the vehicle,” and may be acting for the benefit of autonomous cars manufacturers.

Why It Is Important

Considering the EU’s widely criticized additions to the Copyright Directive, Articles 11 and 13, already dubbed as the “link tax” and “upload filter”, the response from the media and certain internet users doesn’t come as a surprise.

The EU has left open the ownership of telemetry data generated by semi and fully autonomous cars, meaning that where (location, destination, etc.) and how (route, speed, aggressiveness) could all be copyright data owned by the manufacturer. #AI https://t.co/zF77jtG1WX

— Mike Sparling (@mike_sparling)

Max Andresson, the author of the declined amendment himself, responded:

If you thought the new sports event organizers right in the Copyright Directive represented an extreme view on copyright in JURI, just wait till you hear what happened in today's vote on autonomous vehicles. #fixcopyright #notreally

— Max Andersson (@MaxAndersson)

That being said, the data generated by thousands and thousands of autonomous cars in the EU is valuable. Apart from the obvious use in public safety analysis, consumer rights protection, security researches, and many other applications for the benefit of the whole community, these logs are invaluable to corporate interests. A manufacturer may sell it to wealthy insurance companies, marketers, or simply to a highest bidder who would benefit from concealing such data from public. And owning the copyright will allow just that.

An impressive example of somewhat exploitative data handling is that of John Deere, a large farming equipment manufacturer. While at field, their modern tractors log a whole bunch of information about the soil conditions and generate accurate maps of their owners’ fields featuring soil humidity and numerous other important parameters. Sounds great, but the point is that John Deere locks all these data behind its DRM. The farmer who owns the tractor can access only the fragments of information about their own land collected by their own equipment, and only through the app bundled with certain purchases. The company, in its turn, profits from selling the data to the crop futures market.

Such a scenario smells undoubtedly foul, but before believing that data-thirsty corporations indeed strive to have every speck of every sort of information at their grasp, we should think twice. Is everything really as bad as it seems?

Why It Is Not Important

The media circus around the JURI decision, however, is at very least premature. First of all, it’s a draft for a draft: particularly, a Draft Opinion of JURI issued for the Draft Report of TRAN. It means that it might not even have any effect on the anticipated resolution.

Secondly, it is a resolution that we are talking about. It is a non-binding document by its very nature. It is a mere proclamation of some sort of a political will to act accordingly in the given area with no means of enforcing it. However, since copyright issues in the EU seem to be controversial in the light of notorious Articles 11 and 13 of the similarly notorious Copyright Directive, the question should be: even if both drafts become clear recommendations; even if the resolution is passed; and even if it’s somehow made legally binding, is it really capable of making the data in question subject to copyright?

First of all, the information gathered by an autonomous vehicle is not very different from that gathered by a fitness tracker. However, while your heartbeat or blood pressure might be considered your personal data and therefore require some legal protection, there’s nothing personal in the actual curvatures of a road or the weather conditions on the day in question. Furthermore, those data are as impersonal as possible. Most importantly, no data gathered by a fitness tracker are considered a creative work that needs copyright protection. And, by the same logic, neither should the autonomous car telemetric data.

However, surprisingly, there is no law in the EU that clearly defines what should be subject to copyright, and what should not. The EU itself defines copyright as a set of rules that allows the authors or other subjects to exercise their economic rights to control the use and moral rights to claim the authorship of a particular work. There is no actual list of features that a work should have in order to become subject to copyright.

It seems, though, that there is an unspoken understanding suggesting that whatever needs copyright protection should be creative or even artistic, just as Mr. Andersson noted. However, an unspoken understanding is not a law. Not until a court ruled accordingly, at least.

Conclusion

To sum up, it seems very unlikely that telemetric data will ever be considered subject to copyright as it would defy the very definition of a creative work and erase the legal difference between Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and an actual brick. This would have had the potential to disrupt the well-established world of copyrighted content, and not in a good way. And, most importantly, for no reason at all.

That being said, the downvoted amendment was to become a part of a resolution, which is by definition a document that doesn’t have any legally binding power. For example, the UN General Assembly resolutions can contain very powerful words but they have very little effect, to put it politely. So, even in the unlikely event that the EU Parliament’s resulting resolution will expressly state that telemetric data should be copyright-protected, this ‘should’ will be light years away from the weakest ‘shall’ in the house.

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