May 6, 2014 | By April Glaser and corynne mcsherry

International Day Against DRM: It's Time to Fix U.S. Copyright Law

EVENT TODAY: We're taking this day to educate people about the threats of DRM and the current policy challenges we face around DRM. We just completed a live video discussion at 10:00 AM PDT / 1:00 PM EDT to learn more about these fights and what we can do to take back our rights to control over the digital media and devices that we own. EFF Staff Attorney Mitch Stoltz, International Director Danny O'Brien, and Global Policy Analyst Maira Sutton were featured on this live discussion moderated by Activist April Glaser.

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At EFF, we think you should have the right and ability to make full use of your stuff – to tinker, reuse, re-sell, improve, break, and lend. That’s why EFF has been fighting against DRM for more than 15 years.

What is DRM?

DRM stands for “digital rights management,” a bit of technology that hardware and software manufacturers, publishers, and copyright holders use to control the way we use the devices and media that we own. The idea is to limit users’ ability to copy the content without permission, but DRM does much more: it shapes how people tinker with and share devices, software, music, movies, etc. they legally paid for. Have you ever unsuccessfully tried to copy music you “bought” from your computer to your iPhone? Attempted to download an ebook from Amazon only to discover it isn't “compatible” with your device? That’s DRM at work.

DRM and the DMCA

Of course, technologists and everyday users often choose to circumvent DRM, for perfectly lawful reasons, such as making back-up copies of software or CDs, lending materials in a library, or using media and technology for artistic or educational fair use purposes. What they may not realize, however, is that when they break the DRM “lock” they may also be breaking the law. That’s because section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act imposes penalties for bypassing digital rights management technology and/or helping others do the same. But there's no proof of this claim, and it’s merely assumptive.

There is one bit of good news, though. Congress realized that section 1201 might interfere with lawful uses, so it created a small safety valve.  Every three years, the Librarian of Congress is tasked to issue exemptions to the DMCA.  To get an exemption, you have to show that preventing users from routing around DRM has had adverse affects on the legal, non-copyright infringing uses of technology and media. The process is time-consuming, resource intensive, and complex. And it has to be repeated every three years – exemptions are not automatically renewed.

In 2009 and 2012, 2012 EFF asked the Copyright Office to protect the "jailbreaking" of smartphones, electronic tablets, and video game consoles.  We won the first two exemptions, and we’ll be back to defend and build on those gains this fall. 

However, requiring folks to come back and ask for an exemption to an overbroad law every three years isn't a stable copyright system. That became abundantly clear in 2012, when the Librarian of Congress also ruled that phone unlocking would no longer be whitelisted, and set the ruling to take effect in 2013. The failure of the Librarian of Congress to extend protections to phone unlocking caused a huge and justified public outcry.

It’s time to fix section 1201. The best option on the table to do that is, The Unlocking Technology Act. Proposed by Representative Zoe Lofgren, it's a bill that would limit violations of section 1201 to those intended to assist actual cases of copyright infringement.

The House of Representatives passed a much weaker “phone freedom” bill earlier this year, but that bill would only apply until the next DMCA rulemaking in 2015.  And, it  expressly excludes “bulk unlocking,” a perfectly acceptable business model that is no way copyright infringing, is cheaper for consumers, and reduces electronic waste. All in all, the Unlocking Technology Act is our best chance at meaningful reform.

The fight continues.

DRM is a mistake from start to finish. It does little to stop major infringement (because it is commonly and easily broken) but does a lot to impede lawful uses.  Libraries that provide audiobooks for the blind have had to find creative ways to bypass DRM that won't play on the media players of their patrons' home computers. Security researchers face legal barriers to properly evaluating new technologies and services for malware and spyware inside. DRM inhibits your right to repair your car or even do something as simple as using an unofficial coffee pod in your fancy new coffee maker.

Technology is in our homes, it’s in our bodies, and it follows us everywhere. When we can't tinker with and share what we own and when we're forced to only use compatible products from a single company, we all lose. Our world becomes less diverse and less safe, as we are unable to see if there is malware or a flaw in the design of our most trusted products.

The next rulemaking for DMCA exemptions is in 2015, but we’re not waiting to ask for reform. At EFF, we support sound copyright policy like the Unlocking Technology Act, and you should, too. Sign and share the petition today.

Today is the International Day Against DRM hosted by the Defective By Design coalition. Learn about other issues surrounding DRM on our blog and check out the Defective by Design website for other actions happening around the world.

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