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Activists (including the FSF) helped secure a new round of DMCA anticircumvention exemptions

by Greg Farough Contributions Published on Nov 04, 2021 06:50 PM

We have some good news to share. The FSF was one of several activist organizations pushing for exemptions to the anticircumvention rules under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that make breaking Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) illegal, even for ethical and legitimate purposes. We helped bring public awareness to a process that is too often only a conversation between lawyers and bureaucrats. As of late last week, there are now multiple new exemptions that will help ease some of the acute abuse DRM inflicts on users. However, the main lesson to be learned here is that we should and must keep pushing. Individual, specific exemptions are not enough. The entire anticircumvention law needs to be repealed. We want to thank the 230 individuals who co-signed their names to our comments supporting exemptions across the board. We should take this as a sign that even though it can be difficult, anti-DRM activism yields practical results.

Section 1201 is one of the most nefarious sections of the DMCA. The provisions contained in 1201 impose legal penalties against anyone trying to circumvent the DRM on their software and devices or, in other words, anyone who tries to control that software or device themselves instead of leaving it up to its corporate overlords. Section 1201 opens up those who try to study, repair, or research restricted devices to potentially serious legal penalties. Something that doesn't help matters is the intentionally complex series of hoops concerned citizens, researchers, and activists around the world are forced to jump through to voice objection to current anticircumvention rules, or to propose new exemptions.

This bureaucratic nightmare is the only way to lobby for changes in Section 1201, and the fact that it has to be done every three years makes it a recurring one. Nothing abates the added terror of our being granted use anticircumvention exemptions, but being forbidden to share the tools that make this possible. It takes the hard work of hundreds to secure the anticircumvention use exemptions we already have, and even more work to eke out a few more. Yet thanks to the support of citizens, activists, and researchers around the world, the US Copyright Office has approved a few more, while at the same time demonstrating the DMCA's serious flaws.

In coverage of the new round of anticircumvention exemptions we've seen so far, something that stands out is the US Copyright Office's approval for blind users to break the digital restrictions preventing any ebooks from being processed through a screen reader. At least at first glance, it looks like a big win for all of us concerned with user freedom, but a closer look shows something more sinister, as the US Copyright Office refused to make this exemption permanent. The message this sends to all user freedom activists, but especially the visually impaired among us, is: "we're giving you this now because it would seem inhumane otherwise, but we hope that you'll forget to fight for it later so we can allow corporations to keep on restricting you."

The grueling nature of the anticircumvention exemption hearings and comment process would be enough to burn out any one person, which is why we're grateful that the organizations fighting for user freedom have interrelated work. The Free Software Foundation (FSF)'s work campaigning for a user's right to use, study, share, and modify the software that runs on their device has informed our support of the right to repair movement. We hope that our work has inspired some of the individuals and organizations participating in the comment process. The participating organizations have been able to make progress on other important exemptions, whether that's the right to install free software on wireless routers or the right to repair dedicated devices like game consoles.

It's the coalescing of groups like these that is "chipping away" at Section 1201. At the same time, it's telling that we're forced to fight tooth and nail for the meager exemptions we're granted, even with such a broad base of support. The corporations who have a vested interest in the DMCA and Congress itself are content with the status quo, but we shouldn't be content with patches on a broken system. Incremental progress against Section 1201 is of course a good thing, but we shouldn't lose sight of our goal as user freedom activists: a complete repeal of Section 1201, and all other laws that codify or mandate DRM.

The Defective by Design campaign takes a radical stance when it comes to DRM and the laws that support it. We believe that they should not exist at all, under any circumstance, and we need your help to support this mission. Each year we hold the International Day Against DRM (IDAD) to raise public awareness and rally together anti-DRM activists from around the globe, but we're a year-round campaign. If you're ready to join the fight, here's what you can do to help:

  • Join us for the 2021 International Day Against DRM, which will be held on December 10th this year, and participate in its upcoming community planning meeting on November 10th;

  • Join the DRM Elimination Crew email list to stay up to date on our work against DRM;

  • Let us know about your own anti-DRM activism or anticircumvention work through a session at LibrePlanet 2022;

  • Help us improve and revise the Guide to DRM-free Living

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