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Keeping your freedom intact when registering or renewing as a DMCA agent

by Craig Topham Contributions Published on Sep 30, 2021 05:55 PM
DMCA agent registration only lasts three years before it must be renewed. Use these add-ons to register and renew without the use of nonfree JavaScript.

Users shouldn't be forced to use nonfree software when interacting with their own government. Every user has the right to control their own computing, and the government shouldn't be forcing you to download and install proprietary software just to take advantage of its services. But when it comes to registering and renewing the status as an agent under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the United States, that's exactly what the government expects you to do.

The U.S. Copyright Office requires a registered agent to renew their status every three years to help ensure that the agent directory stays up to date. However, the renewal can only be done online, and you are required to use nonfree software. We find this unacceptable. Fortunately, three years ago we devised a way to complete an agent’s registration circumventing the use of nonfree Javascript. Today, we confirm the process still works and it can be applied to renewal as well. We encourage everyone to learn more about these tools to access your government services in software freedom.

Users are likely familiar with the DMCA's more draconian aspects, namely the creation of legal penalties for circumventing Digital Restrictions Management. The Free Software Foundation's (FSF) Defective by Design campaign fights to end that nightmare and repeal that part of the law. But like many laws, it's chock-full of a wide variety of provisions, the anti-circumvention rules being only one of them.

Another piece of the law creates what are known as the "safe harbor" provisions. These rules set out some steps that maintainers of Web sites can take to avoid liability when a user of their site uploads potentially infringing copyrighted materials. The main provision here is that if a copyright holder finds their work hosted on your site without their permission, they can submit a take-down notice to an agent registered for your site. This agent can then remove the work, thus avoiding liability for the potentially infringing distribution. Without this safe harbor, the site maintainer could potentially be sued.

While this safe harbor rule can lead to abuse, with improper take-downs, it also allows maintainers of Web sites to permit their users to share works. If this rule wasn't in place, it would be too dangerous to accept such uploads without reviewing each work -- something most Web sites can't afford to do. The Free Software Foundation takes advantage of the safe harbor provisions to ensure that we can continue to share software created and uploaded by free software developers, or to share information, for example found in the Free Software Directory, or to help people organize local communities via LibrePlanet.org.

As mentioned before, taking advantage of the safe harbor provisions requires having an agent to accept the notices. This is where the problem arises. Since December 2016 the U.S. Copyright Office requires Web site maintainers to register and renew as agents exclusively online using https://www.copyright.gov/dmca-directory/. This site, like many others that the Copyright Office requires use of, is lousy with nonfree JavaScript. Unlike the server software you may interact with when visiting any Web site, JavaScript is actually downloaded and run on your machine. Like any proprietary software, it does not serve the user, and cannot be trusted. Users must avoid nonfree JavaScript just as they would avoid any piece of proprietary software. But if they want to start or continue to enjoy safe harbor provisions, they are forced to allow this intrusion onto their computer.

In 2017, the FSF reached out to the Copyright Office with these issues. We still hope to work out a solution with them for the long term, but until then we have to work with a fix we created. We collaborated with a volunteer to develop a workaround that allows you to register using only free software. The fix requires installing two freely licensed add-ons, LibreJS-compatible Pay.gov and Reveal hidden HTML. These add-ons, when used with GNU LibreJS, allow anyone who needs to register as a DMCA agent to do so without loading the harmful nonfree JavaScript. This solution illustrates one of the beautiful things about free software: when people see a problem and have control over their own tools, they have the power to come together and make things right.

Users have a right to control their own computing. Governments everywhere should ensure that participating in any program they provide does not require the use of nonfree software. But where governments are slow to react, we all have to work together to route around the threat of proprietary software. Here's what you can do to help:

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