Sometimes news events make your point better than you ever could. That was the case this year as we completed the triennial rulemaking cycle of requesting exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's (DMCA)'s restrictions on circumventing DRM.
The process of requesting an exemption is unnecessarily long and difficult, in a number of ways: the Copyright Office demands extensive evidence from those seeking exemptions, exemptions don't “roll over” to the next cycle – even if they're unopposed, and the resulting rules are too limited in scope. Still, EFF participates and has been able to secure some important victories—laying the groundwork for fair uses like jailbreaking phones or ripping DVDs for non-commercial remixes.
But given the length of the process—we submitted our first filing in this year's proceeding over a year ago, and began researching well before that—it's not always obvious which issues will capture the public imagination. To be clear, all of the exemptions we seek are important, and any limitation on a consumer's fair use rights is bad, but some can seem even more relevant and urgent as they get the spotlight of the news cycle.
This year, our exemption requests for security research and repair on cars made the leap from forward-looking to immediate and real, thanks to a handful of news stories that rocked the automobile industry.
First, 2015 was the summer of high-profile car hacking. Security researchers found a vulnerability that allowed them to remotely control a Jeep in some circumstances, and tested it out—with a journalist in tow. Another pair of researchers found a way to take over Tesla software, and presented their research at Def Con. This time last year, we knew that cars were vulnerable to nearby hackers via wireless, but the vulnerability of Internet-connected vehicles makes the problem exponentially more significant.
That would have been enough, but the news cycle seemed determined to validate our requests in another way. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had opposed our exemptions, saying that users might modify their cars to change the emissions output, bypassing the manufacturer's carefully calibrated settings. That EPA filing argued, in essence, for enforcing centralized manufacturer control instead of the transparency and autonomy afforded by more permissive research and tinkering rules.
There's a perfectly good answer to this concern: we can handle emissions problems with environmental laws. It makes no sense, and causes real problems, to use a layer of para-copyright to address it.
An even better answer came from September's biggest business news. Volkswagen was caught programming its cars to “cheat” on emissions tests, performing better than they would in real-world settings. Researchers were able to determine that something suspicious was going on, but were unable to discover the cheat software itself. In trying to access that software, they would have been hindered by the backdrop of legal uncertainty created by the DMCA.
In the context of all these stories, it was rewarding to see our exemptions granted—even if we were frustrated to see a one-year lag and other counterproductive limitations imposed on them. The Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress granted our other exemptions as well (also with some limitations). All in all, we were happy to pull down another set of victories for users, even if we object to the process that generates them.
The problems created by the DMCA's DRM provisions are coming into sharper focus with each passing day. Through ambitious projects like Apollo 1201, EFF and others are working to fix the problems at the root of DRM policies. In this space next year, we hope to be reporting even bigger victories.
This article is part of our Year In Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2015. Like what you're reading? EFF is a member-supported nonprofit, powered by donations from individuals around the world. Join us today and defend free speech, privacy, and innovation.