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The Librarian of Congress Pops Digital Locks

Last Updated on July 27, 2010, 6:54 pm ET

Photo CC BY rebopper

Yesterday the Librarian of Congress announced six classes of works that would be exempted from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) prohibition on breaking digital locks (DRM). The new rules are pretty exciting for higher education folks, as they include a significant expansion of the previous exemption for DVDs and a continuation of the important exemption for visually impaired users of ebooks. ARL has participated in this round of comments for nearly 2 years through the Library Copyright Alliance, and we are very happy with the outcome.

The new rules allow users to break digital locks in six categories of works, two of which are especially important for education and libraries:

  • on DVDs, in order to extract short clips for new works of criticism and commentary, but only if you are:

    • a college or university professor
    • a college or university film or media studies student
    • a documentary filmmaker
    • someone making a “noncommercial video”
  • on ebooks, to make them accessible to print-disabled readers via read-aloud and screen-reader functions, if all existing versions have DRM that disables those functions.

The ebook exemption was put in place in a previous rulemaking and was merely renewed this time around. Interestingly, the Register of Copyrights had recommended against renewing this exception, but the Librarian disagreed.

The DVD exception is a significant expansion of the one granted in 2006. It expands the users who are covered: the previous rule allowed only film and media studies professors to circumvent DVD encryption, but the new rule allows all university faculty, as well as film and media studies students to break DVD encryption. It also expands the class of works that can be used: the previous rule only allowed users to break the encryption on DVDs held by film and media studies departments, but the new rule allows the decryption of any lawfully made and acquired DVD.

The DMCA, passed in 1998 in part to fulfill treaty obligations, created a new right for copyright-holders by making it illegal to break DRM on protected works. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has done an excellent job of documenting the less-than-stellar consequences of this new protection.

The statute includes a safety valve, however. It empowers the Librarian of Congress, after consultation with the Copyright Register and some other stakeholders, to carry out a rulemaking every 3 years to determine if there are categories of works where the protection of DRM substantially impedes non-infringing uses of the work. The most recent set of rules were expected last October, but have only just now been issued. ARL has joined with like-minded groups such as the American Library Association and the Association of College and Research Libraries to participate in every round of rulemaking since the first round in 2000.