Well, it’s that time of decade again. Someone in Congress has finally—or, rather, once again—taken note of how the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions step all over consumer rights and introduced legislation to try to balance the scales.
Ars Technica reports that three Democrats and a Republican, including California rep Zoe Lofgren, have introduced the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013. This act would rewrite the anti-circumvention provision to make DRM-breaking illegal only if it’s done in order to “facilitate the infringement of a copyright.” Non-infringing uses, such as ripping DVDs, unlocking cell phones, and so on, would presumably be allowed.
It’s a great idea. Too bad it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of passing. (Rick Boucher tried something similar ten years ago, but it never went anywhere either.)
Why? Because Big Content doesn’t care whether what you want to do with your content is legal. That’s why they bought the DMCA in the first place, to do an end run around consumer rights by making enabling those rights illegal. It’s as if they realized they couldn’t outlaw eating food from the refrigerator, so they outlawed opening the fridge instead. (Heck, just look at how hard they fight every three years when it comes time for the Librarian of Congress to consider possible case-by-case exemptions to the DMCA. Why wouldn’t they fight such a general weakening of it even harder?)
Consumers have the right to import media from other countries or continents for their personal use and even resale. (This was reiterated just a couple of months ago by the Supreme Court.) So Hollywood implemented region-coding, so that you can’t legally watch that cheaper movie you legally ordered from China on your American player. (Unless you order it from Hong Kong, anyway, where they don’t do region-coding as much.)
Consumers have the right to make fair use of media content, such as e-books, once they buy it. But major e-book vendors such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo want to lock you into their own platforms, so you have to give them all your money and can’t give it to anyone else. So they put encryption on their e-books, and you can’t legally break it, so you can only read their locked-down books on their own devices or apps. And, likewise, movie studios want to sell you multiple copies in multiple formats of their movies, so they make it illegal to copy them yourself.
Let’s not forget, Hollywood wanted to kill the VCR dead, dead, dead. They finally succeeded when they insisted that the new high-definition television standard had to carry DRM, precisely so you can’t easily record high-definition copies of your favorite TV shows or movies off the air. Hollywood has gotten so paranoid about its movies that every so often it intentionally breaks compatibility of new Blu-rays with older players—meaning that sooner or later you’re going to have to buy a new Blu-ray player while your old one still works fine because no manufacturer is going to keep updating old hardware after it becomes uneconomical to do so.
So Hollywood, publishers, and anyone else in the business of selling content is going to fight this legislation tooth and nail—not because they think people want to break DRM in order to do something illegal, but because they think people want to break DRM in ways that will cause them to make less money. And they’ll spend as much money as they do have to kill this legislation as dead as they wanted to kill the VCR.
So write your congressman, asking him to get behind this bill and push. I know I will be. And I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about the bill’s chances. But don’t hold your breath. If Big Content had wanted to let Congress outlaw cracking DRM only for illegal purposes, the law would have been written that way in the first place. And they’re the ones who have all the money on their side.