Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Big entertainment 3, consumers 0

Late last week, the Librarian of Congress issued the latest set of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It said that smartphones were exempt and that tablets were not.
In other words, if you jailbreak your iPhone you can't be sued for DMCA violations. If you jailbreak your iPad, you can, even though you would be running the same jailbreaking app on the same operating system, just on a larger device. The rationale? While a phone is a phone is a phone, there was no officially accepted definition for 'tablet'. So no exception.

The law also made it illegal to copy DVDs for personal use, although you can still copy a DVD 'clip' for use in a documentary or other standard 'fair use' situations. But no format or space shifting a movie onto your iPad. The space-shifting ruling is an example of how broken the DMCA is. In order to convince the Librarian to allow DVD ripping in order to watch it on an iPad, a court would first need to rule that this falls under copyright's fair use defence. Before that could happen, someone would have to rip a DVD (or sell a DVD-ripping tool), get sued in court, and then convince a judge that DVD ripping is fair use. Which would never happen because, get this, with no exemption from the Librarian of Congress, circumvention is illegal whether or not the underlying use is fair use. Did you understand that? No fair use ruling without an exemption, and no exemption without a fair use ruling. The entertainment industry fat cats are laughing in their sleep.

It gets better. While there are provisions for blind people to break DRM so that they can make use of e-books text-to-speech tools, it is still illegal to make a DRM circumvention tool to break the DRM in the first place, as it falls under the 'trafficking' provisions, which are illegal. So you can crack your DRM as long as you make your own circumvention tool. Not a programmer? Too bad so sad.

As of January 2013, it will be illegal to unlock a smartphone sold after January 2013 in order to switch carriers. It will still be legal to unlock a phone you bought before January 2013 to switch carriers. Why? A 2010 ruling held that when you purchase software, you don't actually own it. You merely license it according to the terms in the End User License Agreement. The Librarian argued that this undermined the claim that unlocking your own phone was fair use. But there's an even stupider excuse. There are more unlocked phones on the market than there were three years ago, and most wireless carriers (now) have liberal policies for unlocking their handsets.

As a result, they decided that it should no longer be legal to unlock your cell phone without the carrier's permission. Is it possible that wireless carriers are more liberal about unlocking 'because' of the jailbreaking exception from 3 years ago? All this will do is signal to carriers "You don't need to do this anymore".

In a logical world, circumventing copy protection schemes shouldn't be against the law. DRM schemes harm legitimate users and they do not deter piracy. As the phone unlocking example illustrates, many uses of DRM have nothing to do with copyright infringement at all. Rather, they're a legal pretext for limiting competition and locking consumers into proprietary products. We shouldn't be using copyright law as a backdoor means to give such anti-competitive practices the force of law.

(Condensed and remixed from an Arstechnica article)

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