Earlier this year, Ryan Radia and I spilled a lot of ink on these pages critiquing the various “cell phone unlocking” bills that were introduced in reaction to a successful White House petition. Our assessment of these bills was that they ranged from timid to unhelpful. Their biggest vice was that they were generally band-aids and temporary fixes aimed solely at cell phones and not the underlying problem of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision.
Today, I’m happy to see Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill that would not only fix cell phone unlocking, but also goes a long way in addressing the DMCA Section 1201’s fundamental problems. Quite simply, the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 makes the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions applicable only in cases where the person circumvents a digital lock in order to infringe copyright. So, ripping a DVD in order to distribute a film without permission on BitTorrent would still be illegal, but ripping the same DVD in order to watch the film on your iPad would be OK. This is good sense and good policy.
The bill also would allow the manufacture, sale, and import of anti-circumvention tools now prohibited under DMCA 1201. Sounds nefarious, but in reality what this means is that, for example, Linux users may for the first time get a legal way to play DVDs on their computers. And making tools that help the blind read ebooks won’t get you in trouble with the FBI.
Finally, the bill requires NTIA to conduct a study and publish a report looking at whether the economic impact of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions, and to look at whether Section 1201 should be further amended or even repealed. Yes folks, this bill uses the word “repeal” in its text.
Congrats to Rep. Lofgren and her bi-partisan co-sponsors, Reps. Massie, Eshoo, and Polis, for showing that common sense still has a shot on the Hill.