EFF Asks For The Right To Access Software
Written by Alex Armstrong   
Friday, 07 November 2014

The DMCA law is designed to act against copyright infringement, but it is having some unexpected side effects. Now the EFF wants exceptions to allow people to fix their cars and keep abandoned games running. This request might have unexpected consequences of its own.

Section 1201 of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) prohibits unlocking "access controls", also known as digital rights management (DRM), on software and this is having problems for car owners and digital historians alike. 

 

Software in cars is often subject to DRM and this allows car companies to stop end users and independent repair shops from doing repairs. Even if the technology to unlock the DRM exists, doing so is illegal. 

As EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry puts it:

"The DMCA was supposed to help protect against copyright infringement, but it's been abused to interfere with all kinds of lawful activities that have nothing to do with infringement.

Software is in all kinds of devices, from cars to coffee-makers to alarm clocks. If that software is locked down by DRM, it's likely that you can't tinker, repair, and re-use those objects without incurring legal risk."

This isn't the first time that it has been noted that our ability to repair devices is at risk. Companies go to a lot of trouble - think of Apple's special security screws that stop you opening a device - to lock down their hardware and the fact that software DRM is protected by law make devices such as dongles much more effective.

The EFF has filed a number of requests for exemption with the US Copyright Office, including one to allow people to repair their devices and one concerned with old computer games. 

Many games are protected by authentication servers intended to stop pirated copies from working. The problem is that when the company decides to switch off the authentication servers then even games that were bought and paid for stop working. Reverse engineering the authentication protocol is against the law because it is a circumvention of a DRM mechanism. As well as stopping legitimate users from playing the games they own, this also stops archivists, historians and researchers from studying and preserving the past. 

It seems like a reasonable request for exemption but notice that it might well apply to other software as well as games. For example, Windows XP makes use of an authentication server, which at the moment is still running. Should Microsoft close it down then the same arguments apply.

The final surprise for those of us innocent of the workings of the DMCA is that it is only possible to ask for exemptions every three years. 

"Technologists and artists should not have to get permission from Washington before they create, learn, and innovate, especially when the window to seek permission only comes once every three years," 

This year the EFF is seeking six exemptions in four separate categories:

  • security research, as well as repairs and modifications, for cars

  • ripping of video from DVDs or BluRay disks, as well as online streaming services, for remixes

  • jailbreaking of phones and tables

  • reconfiguration of video games that are no longer supported by their publisher

These sound like reasonable requests that would bring some balance to legislation that currently is weighted towards companies rather than to legitimate consumers.

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