Digital Millennium Copyright Act Exemptions Announced

Zach Berger, MJLST Staffer

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) first enacted in 1998, prevents owners of digital devices from making use of these devices in any way that the copyright holder does not explicitly permit. Codified in part in 17 U.S.C. § 1201, the DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent digital security measures that prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works such has movies, video games, and computer programs. This law prevents users from breaking what is known as access controls, even if the purpose would fall under lawful fair use. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (a nonprofit digital rights organization) staff attorney Kit Walsh, “This ‘access control’ rule is supposed to protect against unlawful copying. But as we’ve seen in the recent Volkswagen scandal . . . it can be used instead to hide wrongdoing hidden in computer code.” Essentially, everything not explicitly permitted is forbidden.

However, these restrictions are not iron clad. Every three years, users are allowed to request exemptions to this law for lawful fair uses from the Library of Congress (LOC), but these exemptions are not easy to receive. In order to receive an exemption, activists must not only propose new exemptions, but also plead for ones already granted to be continued. The system is flawed, as users often need to have a way to circumvent their devices to make full use of the products. However, the LOC has recently released its new list of exemptions, and this expanded list represents a small victory for digital rights activists.

The exemptions granted will go into effect in 2016, and cover 22 types of uses affecting movies, e-books, smart phones, tablets, video games and even cars. Some of the highlights of the exemptions are as follows:

  • Movies where circumvention is used in order to make use of short portions of the motion pictures:
    • For educational uses by University and grade school instructors and students.
    • For e-books offering film analysis
    • For uses in noncommercial videos
  • Smart devices
    • Can “jailbreak” these devices to allow them to interoperate with or remove software applications, allows phones to be unlocked from their carrier
    • Such devices include, smart phones, televisions, and tablets or other mobile computing devices
      • In 2012, jailbreaking smartphones was allowed, but not tablets. This distinction has been removed.
    • Video Games
      • Fan operated online servers are now allowed to support video games once the publishers shut down official servers.
        • However, this only applies to games that would be made nearly unplayable without the servers.
      • Museums, libraries, and archives can go a step further by jailbreaking games as needed to get them functioning properly again.
    • Computer programs that operate things primarily designed for use by individual consumers, for purposes of diagnosis, repair, and modification
      • This includes voting machines, automobiles, and implantation medical devices.
    • Computer programs that control automobiles, for purposes of diagnosis, repair, and modification of the vehicle

These new exemptions are a small, but significant victory for consumers under the DMCA. The ability to analyze your automotive software is especially relevant in the wake of the aforementioned Volkswagen emissions scandal. However, the exemptions are subject to some important caveats. For example, only video games that are almost completely unplayable can have user made servers. This means that games where only an online multiplayer feature is lost, such servers are not allowed. A better long-term solution is clearly needed, as this burdensome process is flawed and has led to what the EFF has called “unintended consequences.” Regardless, as long as we still have this draconian law, exemptions will be welcomed. To read the final rule, register’s recommendation, and introduction (which provides a general overview) click here.

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