The Library of Congress and the 5th Circuit Court of appeals both recently made significant strides in expanding and clarifying the exceptions to the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”).
In its regular 3-year review of exemptions to the DMCA’s anti-circumvention exceptions, the Library of Congress, which includes the U.S. Copyright Office, added to the list so-called “jail breaking” of wireless telephones, most notably Apple’s iPhone. iPhone users are now able to modify, unlock, and use previously unauthorized applications on their cell phones. Apple had argued that modifications to its iPhones constituted unauthorized modification of its software. However, the Library of Congress emphasized that iPhone owners paid for the product and should have the right to modify their phone for their personal use. The new DMCA exceptions also include:
Circumvention of security measures in DVDs, when short portions of the content is to be used for “educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students
Circumvention of security measures in video games accessible on personal computers for certain testing and security-related operations
Circumvention of security measures in computer programs protected by out-of-date hardware-based security accessories (also known as “dongles”)
Circumvention of security measures in ebooks for the purpose of making the content accessible for readers with disabilities, provided that no other edition of the work allows accessibility-related modifications
In MGE UPS Systems Inc. v. GE Consumer and Industrial Inc., the 5th Circuit further clarified the overall scope of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions in ruling that bypassing protections on copyrighted software in order to access or use the product does not necessarily trigger a DMCA claim. MGE had sued GE for copyright infringement, claiming GE hacked the software security key to access its copyrighted software. The Court held that simply viewing or using copyrighted software does not constitute unlawfully accessing copyrighted materials in violation of the DMCA, and that a copyright owner’s software security protections must protect against a right specifically granted Act. That holding also might be significant for some companies faced with allegations of unlicensed software use by organizations such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA) or the Software & Information Industry Associations (SIIA).
The DMCA is multi-faceted legislation, with some provisions that historically have been good for small to medium-sized businesses and some that have been less positive. These recent developments represent a net improvement to the effect of the law for most consumers of digital media.