Talking tech since 2003

James H. Billington is one of the most important and influential people in the technology world; and chances are, you’ve never heard of him. Mr. Billington is the current Librarian of the United States Congress. The title comes with a number of powers, many of which extend beyond managing the world’s largest library. Mr. Billington also has unilateral power to grant exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act–the cornerstone piece of legislation in the United States that fuels copyright, licensing, and digital rights management regulations.

The latest collection of DMCA exemptions have been released, and they will be in effect for the next three years.

If you’re someone who likes to keep up on tech law, I’d recommend that you read that document. For everyone else who just needs the details from 30,000 feet, here are the biggies: you’ll be allowed to rip DVDs for critiquing purposes or for inclusion in a documentary, but you won’t be allowed to put them on other devices. Jailbreaking or rooting mobile phones will be allowed, but tablets will not. And you will still be allowed to unlock your phone from your carrier, but only if the carrier grants permission.

Let’s look at these one by one. First, the DVD ripping rules. Mr. Billington decided that DVDs do, in fact, need to be ripped sometimes, but he believed that the desire to watch movies on multiple devices doesn’t justify that need. He calls the term “shape shifting,” and concluded that it has never been upheld in court as an example of fair use.

The new jailbreaking exemption isn’t very different from what’s currently in place, it’s just shocking to see that it is specifically only allowed on “telephone handsets.” The reason for this, as it was argued, is that “tablet” is too ambiguous of a term and that almost any piece of technology could be called a tablet. Until a better definition of “tablet” is available, no exemption will be granted.

Finally, we have the new rule about phone unlocking. For the past few years, the exemption simply stated that users are allowed to unlock their phones from their carriers. Now, phones purchased after January 2013 can only be unlocked with the carrier’s permission. Part of this decision was the idea that, as a mobile user, you don’t actually own the software on your phone, you just license it. It was also observed that most carriers are quite willing to let you unlock your phone. As a result, you can no longer do this without the carrier allowing it.

If any of this rubs you the wrong way, it should. The DMCA is antiquated–having done a poor job keeping up with technology. Second, it simply doesn’t feel right that the law can be altered at the sole discretion of one man. You think lobbying is powerful with Congress? Think of what that kind of money can do when it only has to persuade one person! Will it stop people from making copies of their DVDs? Not likely. Are there harsh penalties that make no sense? Absolutely. The system is broken, but unfortunately, it’s what we have to work with.


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