As recently reported in chron.com’s Techblog, the Librarian of Congress has approved a few important exceptions to the force of law afforded to digital restrictions management (DRM). This ruling has given the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) grounds to claim victory.
Most of these are long overdue. There were six items, I’m only going to touch on four of them.
The most-noted is that jailbreaking an iPhone, or for that matter, any similar mobile telephone or computing device, is not a DMCA violation now. There’s considerable doubt on whether it was a DMCA violation to begin with, but of course, it’s kind of moot now. This decision, while important, does not even come close to solving the issues with DRM on the iPhone. Apple can still refuse to honor the warranty for jailbroken iPhones and almost certainly will. Play Apple’s game, follow Apple’s rules, and bow to Apple’s whims. There’s still a very real risk that jailbreaking one’s iPhone will sooner or later “brick” it, and there are other laws which may apply to the DRM on an iPhone besides copyright. This ruling would appear at first glance to not necessarily apply to the iPad.
Another victory, which I consider the most important, is for cracking DVD copy protection (Content Scrambling System, or CSS, not to be confused with Cascading Style Sheets). The exceptions granted are for educational uses at colleges and universities, documentary filmmaking, and noncommercial videos. Curiously, the educational exception leaves out elementary and secondary schools. I doubt this was intentional, but either way, the big change is that tools such as DeCSS have substantial non-infringing uses now.
Yet another important victory in this ruling relates to ebooks which have disabled the read-aloud function via DRM. The fact this ruling had to be made to begin with shows just how far the draconian abuse of DRM can go. Maybe this will get the attention of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and yes, even Apple.
Finally, it’s now legally permissible to get around old dongle-based restrictions when the dongle is damaged, obsolete, and no longer being made. I’m surprised any software companies would use such obnoxious and environmentally unfriendly license restriction enforcement techniques today. Yet I do remember seeing reference to USB dongles some years ago, so it’s quite likely they are still being deployed in 2010.
A little sidenode here: my first experience with dongle-based license restriction enforcement is rather humorous. I remember an old golf game called Leader Board for my Atari 1200XL which came with such a device. It took me about five minutes in BASIC to figure out what it did (it appeared as a joystick with both the up and down switches shorted). Having noted this, I was able to rig up a broken joystick to mimic the dongle long after I could no longer find it.