Driven to Tears - GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry

Author:Jeremiah C. Foster
Position:GENIVI Community Manager and FOSS enthusiast
Driven to Tears – GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry 29
Driven to Tears – GPLv3 and the Automotive
Jeremiah C. Foster,a
(a) GENIVI Community Manager
and FOSS enthusiast
DOI: 10.5033/ ifosslr.v7i1.102
The automotive industry is moving toward the use of Free and
Open Source software (FOSS) in vehicles. GPLv3 is currently
presenting a roadblock to greater adoption. Specifically the
Insta llati on Informa tion requi rement in GPLv3 Secti on 6
(sometimes c alled the “Anti-Tivoization” clause) is causing some
car makers to fear GPLv3. These car-makers want to lock down all
software installed on their cars against user modifications, but fear
that using GPLv3 software will prevent them from doing so.
Although there may be good reasons to lock down some software
on cars, car-makers should not fear GPLv3. One solution the
industry may wish to consider to allay concerns about the
Installation Information requirement in GPLv3 is to adopt and
advocate for use of an “Additional Permission” that excepts users
from having to comply with that requirement.
GPLv3; Installation Information; Anti-Tivoization;
Car makers and GPLv3: Current Concerns
In the la st five years, the automotive industry has begun widely using Free Software. 1
Primarily used for handling me dia and providing services – such as navigation – FOSS has
nonetheless made inroads into an industry that has historically relied on closed-source
proprietary software. This cautious movement to Free and Open Source Software (“FOSS”)
has followed a predictable trajectory not unlike other industries which have discovered
GNU/Linux and other FOSS software. 2 The embrace of FOSS software in the automotive
industry, in particular software licensed under the GNU General Public License (“GPL”), has
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30 Driven to tears - GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry
lead to a certain amount of cost savings and improved quality. However, this embrace has not
included GPLv3 – and specifically the Anti-Tivoization clause in that license – and the
rejection of GPLv3 has been vehement enough to result in "blacklisting". 3 This blacklisting is
considered necessary by those who advocate for it in order to prevent users from modifying
the software on their vehicle, which is generally prevented by the locking of software onto
hardware using cryptographic keys.
Locking the software to the hardware – by signing the original software image with a
cryptographic key so that only an image provided by the supplier will boot or install – is a
common practice in embedded devices.4 This process of signing software images – so only
images with the right key will boot or install – effectively prevents a user from modifying the
software on the device since they have no access to the key needed to allow their modified
version to boot or install. This practice was considered by the author of the GPL – Richard
Stallman – to violate the spirit of the GPL, and resulted in the addition of the “Installation
Information” obligation in GPLv3.5
Car makers want the ability to Tivoize the software on their vehicles to ensure that the
user does not modify the software on the vehicle's head unit. The ma jor reason claimed by car
makers for locking the software on their vehicles is safety.
ECU Remapping and Software Locking
The claim that complying with GPLv3 to allow a user to modify the software in a
vehicle based on safety concerns is disingenuous. Drivers have, for many years, replaced
parts of their car, such as tires, brakes or sometimes even software.6 In addition, drivers
frequently use off-brand or non-original parts, often because they're considerably cheaper but
just as safe and functional. There is even a large after-market for remapping Engine Control
Units (“ECUs”).7 ECUs are microprocessors which control fuel mixture, turbo charging,
transmission, and other drive train features of the car, almost all of which in some way affect
safety and performance. This after-market sells services like ECU remapping to increase
performance or to improve fuel economy.8 While the ECU remapping business is something
of a grey market – since it is not fully supported by car makers and can increase the cost of
your insurance and void a car's warranty9 – nonetheless car makers are tacitly supporting this
market. Car makers support ECU remapping by making companies that provide that service
part of their motor sports stable of advisers, by using data from the ECU re-mappers to
understand performance changes resulting from remapping, and generally looking the other
way if customers decide to install re-mapped ECUs.10 Even car dealers may have a hard time
3See “LFCS: GPLv3 and automobiles”
4See “It's not just TiVo locking down their hardware”
5See “Transcript of R ichard Stallman on GPLv3 in Brussels, Belgium; 1st of April 2007”
6See “WTF! It Should Not Be Illegal to Hack Your Own Car’s Computer”
7See “What is Remapping, and is it Worthwhile?”
10 See Ford Racing really wants you to mod EcoBoost engines
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Driven to Tears – GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry 31
spotting a non-original ECU and would therefore likely not refuse warranty service on an
ECU re-mapped vehicle.11
Remapping an ECU can be dangerous. Changing the fuel mixture may not cause safety
issues, but if you were to significantly increase the power of a car without commensurate
changes in handling characteristics you might increase the risk of an accident. Safety issues
certainly need to be considered when remapping an ECU. For these reasons, one would
expect a similar reaction from the car manufacturers to ECU remapping as the current
position on modifications to head unit software; namely, that it is forbidden for safety reasons
and technological measures like cryptographic keys would be used to prevent it. That this is
not widely the case raises the suspicion that there may be other reasons – other that safety –
motivating some car manufacturers to prevent user-modifiable software in the head unit of
their cars.
Software: A New Revenue Driver for Car Manufacturers?
Speculating on those reasons is not hard to do. Car makers are becoming software
producers and they are using this new capacity to market m odern cars to appeal to
contemporary drivers. Software is an opportunity not just to increase safety and performance
but to engage the driver and passengers in a way that builds a relationship. Each update is an
opportunity to strengthen that relationship, each point where the driver or passenger engages
the software is an opportunity for the car makers to build that relationship further, and that
relationship can represe nt an opportunity for significant revenues. These revenues would not
necessarily be significant if they are just gathered through sales via a bespoke app store; the
revenues from such a bespoke app store may be too low – and the costs of alteration of the
relationship between the car vendor and the driver or passenger could be too high – to justify
allowing modified software or applications.
What car makers likely want is a wa y to market new vehicles to younger drivers and to
provide seamless and easy to use services to their middle-age customers, as well as to
integrate modern notions of mobility and connectivity into their vehicles to appeal to a broad
range of customers. Software is a key part of that marketing strategy. In fa ct, advertising
tomorrow's technology manages to sell cars today. This is why we see so much press on the
Apple and Google entrance into the In-Vehicle Infotainment (“IVI”) market; the anticipation
of these companies being connected with systems in a vehicle sells cars now even though it
likely won't be widely seen in cars for years.
Preventing a user from changing the software in their car is likely driven by the desire
to keep the in-car experience branded. The consequences of diluting that brand, either by
blocking branded content, or by causing branded content to work in ways different than the
brand owner desires, could result in loss of revenue through diminished brand loyalty, lost
accessory sales, and even lost advertising – a business some car companies have stated they'll
go into. There is likely a rich trove of data waiting to mined in the vehicle that car makers and
others are eager to get a hold of, so as to target advertising. Keeping control over the In-
Vehicle Infotainment system, the system that provides media, navigation, and connectivity
and runs on the "head unit,” is desirable. There is likely an incentive for car makers to try to
mitigate the effects any license – like GPLv3 – which facilitates a user's modification of
11 Ibid.
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32 Driven to tears - GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry
software on the head unit in a way that could impede data collection or advertisement
Safety: Is It An Issue?
There is, however, some merit to the view that the car makers are not dressing up a
commercial need under the guise of a safety-critical concern. Those who stand in the second
rank on legal issues – right after the automotive le gal team – state that with regard to the
GPLv3, the difficulty is with only the Anti-Tivoization clause, and the reason for disfavoring
that license is safety. That proposition is worth taking at face value if only to test some of the
assumptions made.
Modern cars have around 100 million lines of code running on them, 12 with 70% of
that code being in the head unit. Complexity is a non-trivial issue in automotive software
design. In addition to being complex, cars can be dangerous. The World Health Organization
says that:
[R]oad traffic injuries are the eighth leading cause of death, and as such are
an important global public health problem. They are the number one cause
of death among those aged 15-29 years. There were approximately 1.24
million road traffic deaths in the world in 2010, 77% of which were among
males. Middle-income countries had the highest burden and the highest road
traffic death rates. 13
In the United States deaths in motor vehicles are a serious problem. While the U.S. has
reduced deaths by drunk driving over the last few decades via public health advertising,
ignition locks, and sobriety checkpoints, deaths are still very high in comparison to other
countries. Regulation has a role to play in reducing automobile deaths, and that regulation
will directly affect car makers – both how they construct cars and how they are liable for
Regulation in the auto industry is not typically a consideration for many FOSS
developers. The GPL and other open source licenses typically disclaim any liability, so when
using FOSS, automotive companies may not have the expectation that their suppliers will
assume liability for harms resulting from their software. Either the car manufacturers will
need to become comfortable that they must assume any liability for the FOSS that they use, or
they will have to educate and change the culture of the FOSS software development houses
that they hope to work with so as to reduce the potential for the car manufacturers having to
take on substantial liability for the use of FOSS.
If an automotive company has to go to court, it often requires its software suppliers, via
a contractual indemnity, to shoulder some or all of the legal burden resulting from that
software. This would not occur when one uses software that disclaims any liability. In
addition, because a global car company is selling into (or having its products operate in)
myriad jurisdictions with myriad different rules for liability for products, ensuring safety of
those products so as to reduce the manufacturer's liability costs can be complex and costly.
12 See “Codebases: Millions of Lines of Code” and “Genivi: BMW
Case Study”
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Driven to Tears – GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry 33
Automotive software has a role to play in the liability equation, both in the way in which it
may affect the driver and the vehicle. Whether it is measuring the cognitive workload on the
driver, or assisted driving through monitoring the car ahead, software will be able to greatly
assist drivers to drive more safely. Not preventing a user from tampering with software that
controls those features, be it driver workload assessment or an ignition lock, could have
grievous results and possibly significant legal ramifications. As an example, software that
permitted the user to disable a court-mandated ignition lock, which unlocks the ignition only
if the driver has a detected blood alcohol content below the legal limit or none at all, could be
argued to be contrary to public good, if not in violation of the initial order requiring the
ignition lock. There are at least some circumstances where it is arguably quite reasonable for
car companies to not want some of the software in the car to be modified.
Addressing Anti-Tivoization in Automotive Software
GPLv3 includes a provision that allows a copyright holder to use that license but to
include “Additional Permissions” granting additional rights to the licensee::
Additional permissions” are terms that supplement the terms of this
License by making exceptions from one or more of its conditions.
Additional permissions that are applicable to the entire Program shall be
treated as though they we re included in this License, to the extent that they
are valid under applicable law....
You may place additional permissions on material, added by you to a
covered work, for which you have or can give appropriate copyright
This provision of GPLv3 also allows downstream licensees to remove these
additional permissions, if they so desire;
When you convey a copy of a covered work, you may at your option
remove any additional permissions from that copy, or from any part of it.
(Additional permissions may be written to require their own removal in
certain cases when you modify the work.)15
This provision of GPLv3 provides a m echanism by which a copyright holder who
prefers GPLv3 for their code, but is concerned about the effect of the Installation Information
requirement on its downstream customers or end users, to grant an additional permission that
does not obligate a licensee to follow the Installation Information requirement. At least one
project has adopted such an additional permission, which could serve as a template:
The copyright holders grant you an additional permission under Section 7
of the GNU General Public License, version 3, exempting you from the
requirement in Section 6 of the GNU General Public License, version 3,
to accompany Corresponding Source with Installation Information for the
Program or any work based on the Program. You are still required to
14 GNU General Pu blic License version 3.0, Section 7,
15 Ibid.
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34 Driven to tears - GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry
comply with all other Section 6 requirements to provide Corresponding
An additional permission under Section 7 of GPLv3 which exempts the licensee from
the Installation Information requirement of that license, might allow for GPLv3 software to
be used in automobiles while still locking down the software on the head unit to prevent the
end user from changing and reinstalling the software.17
GPLv3 compliance in automotive applications may hinge on mitigating the effects of
GPLv3 Section 6 and the requirement for sharing of installation information. For many
automobile makers, and perhaps the regulatory authorities whic h set standards for
automobiles, the Anti-Tivoization clause of GPLv3 may be considered a deal breaker for
reasons of sa fety. Use of an Additional Permission that exempts the licensee with complying
with the Installation Information requirement may be a way to allow for use of GPLv3 in
automotive applications while addressing these safety concerns. Other methods, of course,
may also exist; the Free Software Foundation (FSF) believes legislation can help. 18 Free
Software has the potential not just to play an important role in yet another industry, it has the
potential to save lives, quite literally. Once licensing and compliance is understood I think a
very strong case can be made that the transparency e nabled by FOSS makes safety-critical
devices easier to produce, of higher quality, and more effective. This is why there may be the
need, at least at this time, to provide a mechanism by which GPLv3 can be used in the
automotive industry while addressing their current concerns that the Anti-Tivoization clause
may cause safety concerns.19
16 E.g., the Canola Project. See Edward T. Lima, “Additional Permissions to the GPLv3”,
17 Although Additional Permissions are explicitly allowed in the text of GPLv3, and have been
used by projects to exempt licensees from the Installation Information obligation, see, ibid., the
use of such an Additional Permission carries risks. First, making use of such a mechanism
could require that all code (or at least all code for which it is not desired to provide Installation
Information) in the software stack include this Additional Permission a potenti ally difficult or
impossible t ask if the stack is complex or requires code from a variety of different projects.
There might also be the difficult issue of license incompatibility with code licensed under
GPLv3 without such an Additional Permission. If the developer base for the components in the
software stack are believers either in the value of the Installation Information requirement, or
dislike any effort to alter the “purity” of GPLv3 with Additional Permissions, it may not be
possible to make use of this proposal. In addition, any Additional Permission that exists in
GPLv3 code may, per Section 7 of GPLv3, be removed by downstream licensees. This could
also complicate the creation of a software stack not requiring compliance with the Installation
Information requirement. Thus, although this article suggests that an Additional Permission
exempting the licensees from complying with the Installation Information requirement might
help address some concerns within the automobile industry with GPLv3, the logistics of using
and maintaining the Additional Permission might present more complications t han the value of
the Additional Permission in the first place.
18 See “Volkswagen's Diesel Fraud Makes Critic of Secret Code a Prophet.”
19 Many thanks to the members of the Free Software Foundation Europe’s safety-critical special
interest mailing list and countless others who’ve helped me with this article.
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Driven to Tears – GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry 35
About the author
Jeremiah C. Foster is an American living in Sweden, works for Pelagicore AB,
and prefers Free Software to Open Source.
International Free and Open Source Software Law Review Vol. 7, Issue 1
Licence and Attribution
This paper was published in the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review, Volume 7, Issue
1 (December 2015). It originally appeared online at
This article should be cited as follows:
Foster, Jeremiah (2016) 'Driven to Tears – GPLv3 and the Automotive Industry', International Free and
Open Source Software Law Review, 7(1), pp 29 – 36
DOI: 10.5033/ifosslr.v7i1.102
Copyright © 2016 Jeremiah Foster.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 licence, share, adapt, attribution, CC-BY-4.0
available at
As a special exception, the author expressly permits faithful translations of the entire document into any
language, provided that the resulting translation (which may include an attribution to the translator) is shared
alike. This paragraph is part of the paper, and must be included when copying or translating the paper.