Last Updated on April 12, 2016, 4:29 pm ET
*This post is written by Caile Morris, ARL Law and Policy Fellow*
The Copyright Office published a notice of inquiry on December 29, 2015, announcing a public study to “assess the operation of section 1201 of title 17, United States Code, including the triennial rulemaking process to adopt exemptions to the prohibition against circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works.” ARL, along with the American Library Association and the Association of College and Research Libraries, submitted comments and reply comments through the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA). Both the comments and reply comments expanded on section 1201’s fatal flaw: that the language of the statute has the potential to prohibit circumvention of technological protection measures (TPMs) for lawful purposes.
On March 3, 2016, LCA filed comments on section 1201 in response to the Copyright Office’s notice of inquiry. The core message is that the failing of 1201 is its potential to prohibit not just unlawful infringing activities, but also circumvention for lawful purposes. The comments explore section 1201 prior to enactment, efforts to amend 1201 following enactment, the circuit split that has resulted from the flawed language, and recommendations for how 1201 might be amended.
LCA points out the difficulties in applying 1201, as evidenced by the current circuit split. Critics have noted that 1201 could chill legitimate purposes, such as research into computer security and prevent lawful copying under the fair use doctrine or library exception codified in the Copyright Act, and generally promote anti-competitive effects. As LCA’s comments point out,
These critics’ worst fears about the anti-competitive effect of the statute seemed to be validated when two dominant companies attempted to use section 1201 to threaten competitors in aftermarkets. The [Federal Circuit’s] Chamberlain case involved universal transmitters for garage door openers, while the [Sixth Circuit’s] Lexmark case involved toner cartridges for printers. Fortunately, the judges in these cases interpreted section 1201 in a manner that prevented its anti-competitive use. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in MDY v. Blizzard, however, has challenged this interpretation.
The LCA comments address the triennial rulemaking to adopt temporary exemptions to section 1201(a)(1)’s prohibition on circumvention as “an exercise in legal theatre” because the rulemaking only applies to the prohibition against circumvention of TPMs, but not to the prohibition of the development and distribution of circumvention tools. This, in effect, makes a legally permitted activity difficult to carry out, as the tools necessary to do so are potentially illegal to acquire. Other burdens of the process include high costs in time and money, lack of representation for the average member of the public, the language of the exemptions becoming increasingly convoluted, and having to petition for previously granted exemptions every three years de novo.
LCA’s comments recommend several possible amendments to section 1201 in order to resolve the flaws. For example, LCA endorses the approach of the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 which attaches liability to circumvention only if infringement is enabled. In the alternative, additional permanent exceptions should be enacted for educational uses, the print disabled, and embedded software. Additionally, the rulemaking should apply not only to section 1201(a)(1), but also to sections 1201(a)(2) and (b). LCA also recommends that final rulemaking authority be shifted to the Assistant Secretary of Communications and Information of the Department of Commerce, because that office has more expertise in evaluating adverse effects of a circumvention prohibition. Furthermore, an opponent of a previously granted exemption should bear the burden of demonstrating why the exemption should not be renewed or modified, which is under the purview of the Copyright Office to change; nothing in the language of section 1201 dictates that review of the triennial rulemakings should be de novo. Finally, the language of the exemptions should be broader and simpler, promoting easier application of the exemptions by the public.
On April 1, 2016, LCA submitted reply comments primarily responding to the comments of other participants in the notice of inquiry, while reiterating the importance of amending the central flaw of section 1201.
The reply comments identify a “leap of logic” by many content and rights holders industries comments that TPMs would fail but for the legal prohibitions on their circumvention and the creation and distribution of circumvention tools. In particular, the joint comments of the Association of American Publishers, the Motion Picture Association of American, and the Recording Industry Association of America argues that “the protections of Chapter 12 have enabled an enormous variety of flexible, legitimate digital business models to emerge and thrive….” In reply, LCA points out, “if TPMS are so weak that they must be bolstered by legal protections, then why employ TPMs in the first place?” Just because TPMs are important for a business model does not diminish their effectiveness absent legal protection. In addition, there is no real evidence that legal protection of TPMs has contributed to how effective they are. LCA argues that even if there is positive impact from section 1201 as currently written, that the negative impact far outweighs the positive, and revision is justified.
Going forward, the Copyright Office will hold public roundtables to continue its study of section 1201 on May 19 & 20, 2016 in Washington, DC, and May 25 & 26, 2016 in San Francisco, CA. Members of the public are invited to participate, and must submit a request form by April 18, 2016.