Many of my relatives are lawyers and while I don't hold that against them personally, I've never been particularly thrilled with the whole species of homo litigatious. The first (and last) time I told a lawyer joke at a family gathering, the silence was deafening. Oops.
Even though the Electronic Frontier Foundation is filled to the brim with people of the attorney persuasion, this is one group of lawyers you have to appreciate.
EFF, as most of you know, is the nonprofit that litigates on behalf of digital citizens. This week, they managed to get certain interesting exemptions (PDF) to that political pile of poo known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
The DMCA is complex, restrictive, fundamentally anti-American, anti-innovation, and stupid. Key among the provisions of the DMCA are restrictions on reverse engineering anything that's been purposely locked down -- like video game consoles, cell phones, and DVDs.
According to the DMCA, reverse engineering any of these items isn't just going to void your warranty and earn you stern glares from the Steves Jobs and Ballmer, it's illegal and could land you in jail.
Amazingly, there's one almost-intelligent provision in the DMCA, which requires the various provisions of the law to be reviewed every three years to adjust itself with technology.
It's this provision that the EFF used this week to get the government to grant a few limited freedoms in our overly-restrictive DRM world. One restored freedom now allows Americans to run jailbreak software on cell phones, another now allows you to legally move your cell phone from one carrier to another even if the cellphone maker doesn't want you to (can you spell A-p-p-l-e?), one now allows clips from DVDs to be included in YouTube videos, and still another now allows video game controls to be cracked to check for security.
Many, like our very own Jason Perlow, are claiming these eased restrictions will open up secondary app stores for phones like the iPhone.
While this may be true, it's also important to realize that this ruling makes it a just little more legal to use your electronic gadgets, it doesn't force companies like Apple to make it easy. Jailbreaking your iPhone will still void your warranty.
So how should you think about this?
First, the DMCA is still a steaming pile of excrement and just reducing its draconian rules doesn't really free Americans to use their own property.
There are only small, selected freedoms restored in this review. It's still illegal, for example, to back up your expensive and fragile video game and movie discs in case your kid decides to play DVD hockey in the driveway.
We should use this minor victory to remind ourselves that we're still at war with an excessively restrictive, anti-freedom law -- and it must be overturned.
Even if they didn't actually free Americans from the restrictive digital shackles of the DMCA and, as ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan says, this is a non-event, the EFF deserves kudos for restoring what freedoms they could.
Nice job and keep up the good work. To the good folks at the EFF I have this to say: don't worry -- that smootchy-smootch is only figurative. I'm not a toucher. In person, about as enthusiastic as I get is a strong handshake.