Library of Congress Brings Digital Rights Rules Into Modern Era

The Library of Congress, which oversees the U.S. Copyright Office, on Wednesday published new rules to replace a set of controversial — and for many, outdated — measures. Consumers now may hack their own tablet computers, automobile software and Blu-ray devices without fear of being sued.

The ruling upgrades certain provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is designed to protect against the theft of intellectual property. The new provisions allow users to make common sense changes to their devices in order to switch carriers or gain access to personal content, for example.

“We’re pleased with the new exemption for jailbreaking,” said Mitch Stoltz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“The Library of Congress eliminated the arbitrary and increasingly meaningless distinction between smartphones and tablets, and gave some legal protection to users of many more kinds of mobile devices,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

While the actions taken this week were a positive first step, Stoltz noted, there remain a number of provisions in the law that need to be changed. EFF and other organizations have been forced to “spend significant time and resources every three years to simply give device owners the right to use software of their choice” on mobile phones and other mobile devices, and to keep those devices secure.

Advocates Seek Reform

Digital privacy, security and civil liberties advocates welcomed the changes in a Wednesday conference call with Library of Congress officials, noting that the old rules placed severe limitations on ordinary citizens who had no interest in doing anything illegal.

“We believe this was a major step forward in security research and security testing,” Matthew Green, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, said on the conference call.

One of the limitations of the old rules was that any type of modification made to certain devices for security research could violate the DMCA, Green pointed out, noting that some of his graduate students could be technically in legal jeopardy just for doing research.

The American Foundation for the Blind represented a group fighting a law its members deemed absurd. They wanted an exemption just to access electronic books without being in violation of the law.

“Our situation sort of illustrates in fully stark terms why the 1201 process needs to be fundamentally rethought,” said Mark Richert, director of public policy for the organization.

Users of tablet computers — such as Apple’s iPad or the many Android versions — will not jump onto a jailbreaking wave as long as their concerns about reliability and security are protected, maintained Brian Kilcourse, managing partner at RSR Research.

“The whole issue gets back to what users want,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s been my view that Apple users want technology that works, and are willing to pay for assurances that anything they download will behave as expected and won’t crash the device. This is really the same driving force that led people to choose a Macintosh instead of a Windows PC.”

Content Protection

The old rules provided necessary protection for content producers, who had mixed reactions to the updates.

“Without the protections embodied in Section 1201, many of these platforms simply would not exist,” said Howard Gantman, spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association of America.

“We are pleased that today’s ruling protects against damaging expansions into space- and format-shifting, and will further encourage the development of new, legal platforms,” he continued. “While we respectfully disagree with certain of today’s rulings, such as those pertaining to Blu-ray discs and smart TVs, we are grateful to Register Pallante and her dedicated staff at the Copyright Office for the hard work that went into the recommendations to the Acting Librarian.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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