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Last week, a revolving door of digital media users took turns pleading with the Copyright Office for permission to use their content. Teachers and documentarians sought the right to create high-quality video clips for use in their classrooms and documentaries; the visually impaired argued for the right to enable read-aloud functionality on eBooks and enjoy movies with narrated visual descriptions; and Public Knowledge, advocating for the public at large, sought a right to copy lawfully owned DVDs for personal use (e.g. to play a DVD movie on an iPad, or similar device).
How did we arrive at this place, where copyright users must ask permission to use lawfully acquired content in non-infringing ways? The short version of the story goes like this:
In 1998, Congress enacted Section 1201 of the Copyright Act as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), making it illegal to circumvent access controls to copyrighted works. Section 1201 was a simple answer to a complex issue: by making copying easier than ever, digital media threatened to undermine the copyright industries’ ability to control and sell copies of creative content – the foundation of their business model.
The only safety valve to this provision is the requirement for a triennial rulemaking proceeding. During this proceeding, the Copyright Office accepts proposals for exemptions to the anticircumvention rule, hears testimony from the proponents (and opponents) of proposed exemptions, and issues final recommendations for the Librarian of Congress’ approval (prior recommendations can be found here).
In the current rulemaking proceeding, Public Knowledge proposed an exemption for consumers who circumvent access controls to create personal copies of lawfully owned DVDs. Just as ripping music from a lawfully owned CD to an iPod – i.e. “space shifting” – for personal use is non-infringing, presumably, so too is space shifting a movie from a lawfully owned DVD to an iPad. In effect, the only thing standing between the purchaser of a DVD movie and his or her right to watch that DVD on a tablet is Section 1201.
At the final rulemaking hearing, Public Knowledge Staff Attorney Michael Weinberg contended, “people already believe that [making personal copies of DVDs] is legal. […] I can’t think of any harm that would result from exempting this common practice.” When the Copyright Office asked the lawyers representing the content industry (i.e. the opponents) to respond, they argued that the exemption threatened to harm the market for online digital movie sales.
Put another way, the opposition claimed that their clients would suffer harm without the legal right to charge consumers a second time for the exact same movie they had already purchased on DVD. Public Knowledge rebutted, “for there to be a legitimate harm, there must be a legitimate benefit to begin with, and the Copyright Office would be wise to avoid legitimizing this practice.” Still, the Copyright Office seemed content that the opponents had identified a potential harm, regardless of its relative legitimacy.
Listening to the dialogue at these hearings – to documentarians impeded in their ability to use high quality content in their films and books; to technology enthusiasts unable to install the operating system of their choice on a computer they legally own; to educators unable to create and customize high quality content to improve their lessons; and the list goes on – one must question whether the existing copyright regime is doing more to protect business models than to promote the progress of creativity for the public good (i.e. the constitutional purpose of copyright).
The combination of digital media and the Internet have given rise to what some refer to as the “participation age.” In this participation age, creativity and the public good might both be better served by a copyright framework that grants users affirmative rights, as opposed to a system that requires users to plead for narrow exemptions every three years.
In the aftermath of this latest round of rulemaking, much attention will be paid to which exemptions were approved, and which were set aside. Such analysis is important, as these exemptions will become the law of the land. However, as we wait to learn whether it is legal to jailbreak a smartphone, or to make a personal copy of a DVD, it is also important that we not lose sight of the forest for the trees.