Don't Get Too Excited About the LOC's Copyright Decisions

Today the Library of Congress announced new laws ( perhaps more accurately interpretations of existing laws , as their rulings created ‘exemptions’ to the DMCA laws ) designed to strengthen the concepts of “Fair Use” in as it applies to the corpus of U.S. Copyright law.

The LOC’s decisions are both shocking and enlightening — few expected such an interpretation could ever be possible given the extensive amount of lobbying special interests spend before lawmakers.

Honestly, while I’d agree that their decisions are “correct” and within the spirit of the law, I’m completely fucking floored they had the balls to do the right thing. This is – undoubtedly – a HUGE day in U.S. law.

In a nutshell, the Library of Congress said that it does not violate the DMCA or Copyright Law to circumvent digital protections — that is to say that one is free to descramble a DVD for legal use, jailbreak a digital device (ie: iphone), or circumvent a hardware dongle for legally obtained software. For years people have said that a common-sense and fair interpretation of the law should allow for these things — but industry lobbies used highly paid lawyers with bizarre reasonings and countless campaign donations to influence the development of laws to suit their interests.

While I’m very excited about this win for democracy and fairness, I’m not entirely sure that the decisions are anything to be excited about in terms of ‘resolution’ to these issues.

While the Library of Congress has clarified the law to allow for these types of uses as *not* a violation of Copyright , they have not (nor are they probably able to) ensured that these are rights that may not be given up through contract law.

For decades, lawyers have relied upon contract law to make up for deficiencies in copyright law – creating new protections for their clients by sidestepping any arguments around copyright. For example, while it would not be a violation of US Copyright Law (under the new interpretations) for a user to modify Apple’s software, there could exist a contractual clause — like an End User License Agreement [EULA] or Terms of Service [TOS] between a consumer and Apple or their cellphone carrier to make modification of the device prohibited. Apple could then sue customers based not on Copyright, but on Contract Law.

If you don’t think these types of contracts would come into play, look at the full text of TOS and EULA of software that you buy… or websites that you use like Facebook or MySpace. You might note numerous passages that talk about who can access the servers and under what conditions — large media companies like these routinely use Contract law to chip away at access to fair-use content. Expecting industries to become more relaxed at this practice, while they lose certain copyright protections they believed they had, is nothing short of ridiculous.

It would have been truly remarkable if Congress were to ensure that people have irrevocable rights to circumvent copy protections and modify devices — rights that can not be given up or outlawed within any contract. Sadly we don’t have that yet. However, this decision also means that the numerous lawsuits that the media lobby might bring up in these areas would not be in federal courts and handled by federal investigative agencies — but that they would be in civil courts with the plaintiffs responsible for their entire bill. I’ll drink to that!

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