Copyright law isn’t Kim-Kardashian’s-oiled-butt level stuff; it doesn’t break the internet.
But important things hardly ever do. Believe it or not, copyright law is shaping up to be the next big battleground in technology. And its fundamentally redefining ownership.
Copyright isn’t just about pirating music or downloading DVDs anymore. Like a creature alive, copyright is evolving and expanding. Traditional “dumb” products are being replaced by an internet of things — and copyright is hitching along for the ride. Its
DNA is being woven through the programming that powers your car, the firmware in your phone, the code in your kid’s talking teddy bear, and the software that calibrates your hearing aid.
But let’s back up a bit. What on earth does copyright have to do with teddy bears and hearing aids? The answer to that question begins in 1998, when US lawmakers were attempting to halt the growing specter of piracy. They passed a law to govern the brave new world of digital content: the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, colloquially known as the DMCA.
It’s a massive law, but one part is especially significant: the anti-circumvention clause.
Under Section 1201, Congress made it a copyright violation to break digital locks placed over copyrighted content, like movies and software. But the edict doesn’t account for intention. Circumventing the lock is the violation—whether or not the lockbreaker pirates the work.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and technology has changed. A lot. At the time, lawmakers didn’t anticipate that creative content—in the form of programming—would find its way
into everything that we own. They had no idea that our whole lives would become computerized. They didn’t know that everything, from refrigerators to singing birthday cards, would be powered not just by gears and electrons, but also by lines of code—code, which is technically copyrighted. And they didn’t anticipate that manufacturers would start using digital locks to keep tinkerers out.
Thankfully, there’s a failsafe. Every three years, petitioners can ask the
Librarian of Congress (LOC) for permission to pick locks on certain technologies. And every three years since 1998, digital watchdogs and consumer advocates have trudged in front of the LOC to ask if people can unlock their own iPhones, or jailbreak their own tablets, or tinker with their own game consoles. Every three years, the LOC listens to their arguments and decides. Historically, his decisions come with