Since 1998, breaking most types of digital locks, often called Digital Rights Management (DRM), is against the law. Even well-lawyered companies that tried to plead fair use, as RealPlayer did in 2008, have been crushed. What chance does a regular Joe have?
But if you have a legal use for copyrighted content, there is an “out.” Every three years, the Copyright Office accepts petitions on what activities should get an “exemption” under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The sixth tri-annual rulemaking is now upon us, and the deadline is this Monday, November 3.
“It’s not a heavy lift to file a petition,” said Sherwin Siy, VP of legal affairs at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that’s long been active on copyright issues. “Five pages, max, short and sweet.”
Be specific, note that your activity does not infringe copyright, and explain “what harms you suffer by not being able to do this,” says Siy. “Don’t say ‘all software,'” he suggests. “Try and have some boundaries. If you have a particular point of view or example you’re dealing with, provide that.”
Past exemptions have only been granted a handful of times. In the last round, for example, exemptions were granted for things like using short clips of DVDs for use in documentaries or for making educational clips.
It’s a cumbersome and idiosyncratic process: unlocking one’s cell phone to switch carriers was given an exemption nine years ago, which was renewed six years ago—and then in the last cycle, the exemption wasn’t renewed. So phone unlocking became illegal again, until that was reversed by Congress this summer.
This year, Siy says Public Knowledge will be submitting petitions asking to legalize consumer ripping of DVDs, as well as allowing circumvention of DRM-based input to 3D printers. (In layman’s terms: “You can only use Acme Brand Plastic in our Acme 3D printer!”)
He’s heard of other petitions on the way that will try to get exemptions for everything from medical devices to automobiles. Phone unlocking will surely come up again since the recent bill didn’t fix the problem permanently. And expect another attempt for “jailbreaking,” the allowance of unauthorized apps on smartphones.
Once the petitions are submitted, it’s the beginning of a months-long process until the actual rules come out. The Copyright Office will ask for “evidentiary filings,” then allow opponents of the exemptions to respond, and then schedule public hearings on the proposed exemptions.
Those considering filing should read the Copyright Office’s webpage regarding the rulemaking, check their proposed template (Word file), and read the Federal Register notice that goes into detail on what they’re looking for. To upload a petition, do so via the submission page.
Is DRM getting you down—creating a barrier to something that you think should be legal? Let us know by dropping us a line or share your experience with the community in the comments.