The topic of copy protection is getting renewed attention due to an American hacker called “Bunnie” Huang, who is suing the US government. You can read his motivations in his letter linked below. He is specifically referring to the DMCA section 1201, which makes any act of circumventing copy protection an offence.
Relevance to the AV industry?
This topic is relevant to the AV industry in multiple ways, but perhaps the most evident example is audio/video on demand (AVOD) systems. Under the DMCA section 1201, copying (ripping) disks to a hard drive, even if it is only for your own viewing convenience, is illegal, because in order to do that you have to break copy protection. This very law is what a renowned manufacturer of such systems, Kaleidescape, has fought many court battles over, and why a number of other manufacturers got out of the AVOD business completely. After years in court, Kaleidescape has managed to implement a solution that keeps the DMCA at bay, but it has been at the expense of the practicality of the system. Most other manufacturers of VOD systems waive liability for the ripping process and put that liability squarely on the shoulders of their clients. Fair enough, but it puts owners of such systems in a difficult position, because if they have a disk collection they want to import to the system, they basically have to break the law to do so.
My 2 Cents
Copyright law is hard, I’m sure, but wouldn’t it just be much simpler to focus on the intent and the results of the circumvention of copy protection rather than on the act itself?
Let’s look at it from a different perspective. I, like most people, have a lock on my front door. Locks were designed as a deterrent to make it more difficult for people who shouldn’t have access to something to gain access to it. Very similar to copy protection, right? Now imagine there were a law analogous to DMCA section 1201, but applied to locks: “Circumventing any door lock in any way is a crime.” That would make me a criminal for unlocking the door to get into my own house. How ridiculous would that be? But that’s exactly what the DMCA is doing for content. Unlocking any ‘digital lock’ is a crime. With the door lock example everybody intuitively understands that the act of unlocking the door is not the issue. It’s the circumstances surrounding the unlocking that make it legal or illegal to do, yet with content, no such luck.
Well actually that’s not completely accurate… what makes this even more interesting is that there is actually a list of exemptions to section 1201 that is maintained by a committee (“Librarian of Congress”) and updated every 3 years (!!). So if you unlock content for a specific reason that is covered by that list, you’re not considered to be doing anything illegal. However, doing something as harmless as creating a digital copy of a DVD you bought 20 years ago because you want to salvage the movie before the disk gets too scratched is still considered illegal. It’s not on the list. Also ripping the movie to a hard drive in order to be able to watch it on other devices than a disk player is considered illegal, even if you are the only one who ever views that content. The act of ripping a disk for personal use actually has a technical name as well. It’s called “non-commercial space shifting/format shifting”. Multiple appeals have been made to the Librarian of Congress to include these activities in the exemptions list and simply consider them ‘fair use’, but all appeals have been rejected.
There should absolutely be laws to protect copyright as such, I don’t think many people will argue with that, but whether there should be laws enforcing copy protection mechanisms seems questionable to me. Somebody will always find a way to circumvent the measures anyway, and there will always be people who will abuse that. Just like the lock on my door. Some lock picking enthusiast will find a way of opening that type of lock, and criminals will gladly exploit that technique. That kind of abuse is what the law should be concerned with, and to be fair it is, but I think the lawmakers got a bit carried away with section 1201. That law gets in the way of fair and plausible use of legally purchased content and it makes activities undertaken without malice, without a victim and without danger to anyone, a crime. That is quite sad, and I’m very interested to see how this all plays out.
Originally published on by Edwin Edelenbos on LinkedIn.