Look, it's a blue moon: DMCA reform bill introduced in Congress

Look, it's a blue moon: DMCA reform bill introduced in Congress

Summary: Three Democrats and a Republican have proposed a House Resolution entitled the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013. It's actually good governance. Surprised?

TOPICS: Government

We all spend so much of our time justifiably bitching about the incredibly stupid, lobbyist-driven actions of our elected officials. In that context, it's incredibly important to celebrate those few and far between times that our representatives actually do their real jobs: Do good things for our country.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF), better known as the DMCA, is a troublesome piece of legislation. One of the many legislatively regressive darlings of the music and movie industry, the DMCA has long constrained an important element of technological development: Reverse engineering.

The DMCA has vaguely written anti-circumvention restrictions that make simple actions like repairing your car (there's a computer-based sensor adapter you're not allowed to touch) or backing up your DVDs potentially illegal. So if you've made a backup copy of the Barney disk because you know your four-year-old will break it again, you may be breaking the law.

A big problem of the DMCA is that it purposely restricts fair use, and yet illegal copying and piracy goes on with abandon. Part of the problem is that the DMCA is domestic legislation, but the internet is international. If you want to restrict torrent downloads of Game of Thrones, an American law won't prevent a Russian pirate from posting the episode.

Studio behavior is also at issue when it comes to piracy. As I wrote back in March, one way to fight video piracy is to make shows available legitimately.

But this article isn't one of the many that complain about the DMCA. This article is to acknowledge and support actual legislative action intended to fix the DMCA. Seriously. Constructive work from Congress. Whodathunkit?

This, by the way, marks the second time in the space of 90 days that our Congress critters have actually done something constructive. I reported the last time, in March, about the US government requiring security reviews for Chinese tech purchases.

This time, we have three Democrats and a Republican (Zoe Lofgren, Thomas Massie, Anna Eshoo, and Jared Polis) who have proposed a House Resolution entitled the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 (PDF).

This five-page Bill edits the DMCA. Rather than just restricting any reverse engineering or unlocking, it allows reverse engineering unless the purpose is to infringe on copyright. In other words, it puts the fair use back into the law, as it was always meant to be.

In addition to clarifying law about things like backing up DVDs, or attaching your own test equipment to your car to maintain it, or fixing abandoned products that you still happen to own, it allows for the unlocking of cell phones, allowing you to take your expensive device and find the carrier that you want to use without the Library of Congress dictating how you're locked into your phone service.

So far, the Bill doesn't even have an HR number. It's an intelligently written edit, so the chances of it passing are pretty low. But that, boys and girls, is where you come in.

This is when it's time to take to the Twitterverse, to Facebook, to the internet, even to the old-fashioned telephone and call your Congressional representatives (just click here and type in your ZIP code), and tell them you want DMCA reform. While the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 may or may not be the answer, the DMCA as it stands certainly needs help and has been "buggy" for years.

Oh, and remind them that this is America, land of the free and home of the brave. We want free use, and Congress needs to be brave enough to stand up for what's right.

Topic: Government


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Excellent Idea!

    Now is there any chance of rolling back the post-mortem time of copyright to what it was before Disney got Congress to extend it, just to stop porn parodies of Mickey Mouse? And better yet, restrict it to the ESTATE OF THE REAL PERSON rather than CORPORATIONS? Maybe, but not until Congress is repopulated with populists.
    • None of these crazy laws have stifled true piracy.

      I agree with jallan32. Media copyrights should be held by authors and their estates, not corporations who purchase the rights without having anything to do with the original content creation.

      Also, the criminals selling copies of copyrighted material on street corners or on web sites don't care how many insane laws are passed. By definition, these criminals do not follow the law. The ONLY people these laws hurt are the honest people like me who actually pay for their media. Big media is run by a bunch of idiots who have no clue about how to treat paying customers. We give them our money and they treat us like criminals.

      Also, this isn't even a real bill yet. It's little more than an idea written on paper. There is no HR number attached to it and there may not ever be a number. This means it won't ever be voted on. In my mind, it's premature to get our hopes up that the idiots in Congress will do something logical for a change. The members of Congress are well known for being technological idiots who are easily manipulated by Big Media lobbyists who fabricate data from the ether to help their Congressional puppets justify the actions they take against consumers. At this point, it's a safe bet this bill will never see the light of day, much less be queued up for a vote. The corruption in Congress makes me sick to my stomach.
  • The good is the enemy of the great

    I actually don't like this idea very much, because in messing with certain specific parts of the DMCA, it legitimizes the rest of it. Anti-circumvention isn't just problematic in certain cases; it's an unconstitutional abomination through and through, giving legal protection to hacking and extralegal justice (vigilantism) in the form of DRM. DRM needs to be recognized as what it is and criminalized, not protected by the DMCA.

    And that's not the only problem with it. I don't know where people get the idea that the "safe harbor" provisions of the DMCA are something good, but the term's an Orwellian abuse of the language if there ever was one. Safe Harbor adds liability to good, useful websites and services, encourages easily abusable extralegal justice in the form of DMCA takedowns, and doesn't actually protect anyone--even if they comply--if the bad guys truly want you taken offline. (See: Veoh, Megaupload.) Without the additional burdens imposed by the DMCA's Safe Harbors, user content-centric websites could operate under Common Carrier doctrine, which provides near-total protection from liability as long as you treat all content fairly. (The requirements of Common Carrier would also solve our Net Neutrality problems for us, killing two birds with one stone.)

    We don't need DMCA reform; we need to repeal it in its entirety and replace it with something that's actually good for the Internet and not just the corrupt publishing interests.
  • Protect what people actually want to protect.

    Britain has a 50-year copyright period. A few years ago, all of Elvis Presley's music went out of copyright in Britain.

    Frankly, I don't have a problem with long copyrights on material that ACTUALLY PRODUCES SIGNIFICANT REVENUE long term. People still buy Bambi, still watch Disney cartoons, etc. As many commentators have pointed out, in many cases movies made for commercial distribution did not make a profit until decades later. I have no problem with extended copyright protection on that.

    BUT, one of the things *I* do is genealogical research (as a hobby). Because of 1976 changes in the copyright law and then the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE YEARBOOKS after 1977 are AUTOMATICALLY copyrighted for 120 YEARS.

    The result? Companies like Ancestry.com won't scan them or make them public without express written permission from the school. And the schools won't give permission because they've got more important things to worry about like keeping their doors open.

    By the time the copyright runs out, the materials will have long since disappeared, destroying what is in fact a valuable cultural heritage asset.

    It's about time the "automatic copyright" was reigned in to the types of materials for which content produces traditionally HAVE sought protection.
    • Renewals

      Instituting copyright renewals would address the issue you raised, and while still unlikely to happen, at least would be more likely to make it through congress than and reduction in lengthy copyright terms.

      An argument could be made that due to a person being deceased, a person's family might forget to renew a copyright, but that would still leave corporations and organizations (works for hire) as fair game. If they want a copyright to be 95 years, they can at least be bothered to indicate they are still interested in retaining it once every couple of decades.
    • Yearbooks as Public Documents

      Yearbooks are produced using state & federal tax monies, correct?

      Anything produced by the federal government by an officer or employee of the U.S. government as part of that person's official duties cannot be copyrighted. However, things produced by other than the federal government, i.e. states, counties, etc, can.

      The question becomes "What percentage of the funding used for yearbooks, the making of, the filing and archiving thereof, is paid for with federal funds?

      Section 105 of the Copyright Act might need a small change, or maybe not. What is paid for with federal dollars?

      And, given the federal takeover of education via the Dept of Ed, what if any portion of education can still be classified as "local"?

      I foresee a smart law firm getting rich off this one.
  • an intelligently written edit, so the chances of it passing are pretty low

    Doesn't that about say it all about Congress?
  • re: masonwheeler

    Reply button is giving me troubles, so I have to reply here . . .

    "because in messing with certain specific parts of the DMCA, it legitimizes the rest of it."

    False. It's always legitimate until a court says its not. Things do not "become legitimate" in law. They're legitimate until they're declared unconstitutional or repealed.
  • Not impressed

    Weak and wimpy reform of a crummy bill.
  • Also having trouble with the reply button

    While it would be preferable to repeal the DMCA in its entirety, anything that's likely to be an improvement over the status quo should be considered. Refusing to fix bad laws because one thinks they should be repealed instead is an all-or-nothing approach that does nobody any good.
    John L. Ries
  • DCMA reform might be a good idea,

    but reforming it should not restrict the GNU GPL or any other open source laws. There needs to be plenty of clarification an little to no "fine print".
    Richard Estes
  • Now we know.....

    ....why the Hollywood celebs are so cozy with Washington.....especially the Demacrooks....it's not that the care about us so much.....as it is to line their own pockets at the expense of our 4th or 5th amendment rights.....or whatever amendment of our constitution is in their way......
    • um... sure...

      You do realize that none of the "Hollywood celebs" own the rights to the content they starred in or helped create. It's Big Media (the studios) which holds all of the rights and are responsible for the widespread corruption in Congress. The people who own the studios play both political sides. They don't care if it's a democrat or republican they own, as long as it's a voting member of Congress.
  • DMCA versus Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107

    "The DMCA has vaguely written anti-circumvention restrictions that make simple actions like . . .backing up your DVDs potentially illegal."

    Hmm, while I agree that RIAA and MPAA make these deliberate-and-criminal assertions, and that many lawyers, judges, and congress members support them, none of that makes it any less asinine.

    I may have missed it, but where in the DMCA does it change, delete, override the Fair Use mechanisms enshrined in Title 117 ?

    What we need is a clause that states organizations, lawyers, judges, congress critters, and cops will be personally liable for enforcing DMCA in violation of Title 117 and other such laws that protect the consumer. Once we place the burden on the criminals who are violating us and our rights, the problem will begin solving itself.