October 28, 2008 | By Fred von Lohmann

DMCA: Ten Years of Unintended Consequences

Today is the tenth anniversary of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 28, 1998. EFF is marking the occasion with the release of a 19-page report that focuses on the most notorious part of the law: the ban on "circumventing" digital rights management (DRM) and other "technological protection measures." The report, entitled Unintended Consequences: Ten Years Under the DMCA, collects reported cases where the DMCA was used not against copyright infringers, but instead against consumers, scientists and legitimate competitors.

The collected stories are like a trip down memory lane for those who have followed digital freedom issues over the past decade. Here are a few examples of DMCA abuse in the report that you might remember:

  • In 1999, Sony sues Connectix over the Virtual Game Station, which let you play your legit Playstation games on your Macintosh.
  • In 2001, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) threatens Princeton Professor Ed Felten's research team over disclosure of vulnerabilities in audio watermarking technology.
  • In 2001, Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov is arrested after speaking at Defcon, accused of building software for his employer, ElcomSoft, that converted Adobe e-books to PDF.
  • In 2002, Blizzard sues a group of hobbyist open source developers over bnetd, server software that allows people to play Blizzard games against each other over the Internet.
  • In 2003, Lexmark uses the DMCA to block distribution of chips that allow refilling of laser toner cartridges.
  • In 2004, Hollywood succeeds in shutting down 321 Studios' DVD X Copy software, which allowed people to make backup copies of their own DVDs.
  • In 2006, computer security researchers at Princeton delay disclosure of the Sony-BMG "rootkit" based on fears of DMCA liability.
  • In 2008, Hollywood targets Real Networks over RealDVD, software that allows you to copy DVDs to a hard drive for later viewing.

The collection of stories makes vividly clear what EFF has been saying for the past ten years: the DMCA has harmed fair use, free speech, scientific research, and legitimate competition.

That's all the more galling because the law has failed in its stated goal of preventing digital piracy, instead being used to prop up weak DRM schemes whose only purpose is to hinder competition, innovation, and interoperability. That explains why the music industry has largely abandoned DRM, while the Hollywood studios cling to it more fervently than ever.

Not everything in the DMCA is bad. While the anti-circumvention provisions have proven to be a dangerous failure, the so-called "safe harbor" provisions for online service providers have succeeded in creating enough legal certainty to launch companies like Yahoo, Google, eBay, YouTube, and MySpace. Of course, copyright owners have been working hard in cases like Viacom v. YouTube and Io v. Veoh to erode these safe harbors. And, while the safe harbors have protected intermediaries like Google, they have not adequately protected the free speech interests of internet users, as the McCain-Palin campaign recently learned.

There have been recent rumors that the new Congress might reopen the DMCA, creating an opportunity for reform. Unfortunately, that may also create an opportunity for MPAA and RIAA mischief. For now, here's hoping that the DRM continues its slow death and the anti-circumvention provisions become less relevant to real businesses, while the courts continue to interpret the safe harbors to leave a door open to the Internet's disruptive innovators.

P.S. For more perspectives on the DMCA's origins and legacy during this 10 year anniversary week, see Freedom to Tinker and the Public Knowledge blog all this week.


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