It seems a no-brainer that copying a DVD movie and reselling it should be illegal. But how about copying it to your iPod? Or, if you’re a professor, copying snippets of “Citizen Kane” to illustrate a point in your class?
Well, the answer is “No, you can’t” on the iPod. But academics can freely capture Kane’s “Rosebud” moment and other highlights, courtesy of a decision by the U.S. Copyright Office that went into effect this week.
The rulings highlight the same murky legal frontier where copyright law meets burgeoning digital technology. It’s a place shadowed by the question, “Where do the rights of digital-age property holders–be they movie studios or phone companies–end, and the rights of consumers begin?”
Such questions are dealt with by the Copyright Office, an arm of the Library of Congress. It helps decide what is legal by issuing exemptions to a landmark 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The exemptions, issued every three years, are based on complaints about the law’s shortcomings.
The digital copyright act is this country’s way of complying with global intellectual-property treaties drafted in 1996. The treaties and the 1998 law were born when digital technology had begun upending the way music, video and other media were being delivered to consumers.
Owners of copyrighted media wanted to ensure their property was protected in the new digital world. TV studios, for instance, would be hard-pressed to sell video clips on the Internet if someone could copy them for resale without penalty.
So, the DMCA makes it a crime to circumvent the technological safeguards that movie and other media companies take in order to protect their property.
That protection is known as digital rights management, technology that locks up copyrighted material. For instance, a DVD is specially encrypted to prevent copies from being made.
The problem, Internet civil liberties advocates say, is the breadth of the DMCA and how intellectual-property owners are interpreting it.
The law has been used at times to deter innovation and competition–not piracy, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based Internet civil-liberties group. A lawsuit over a garage door opener serves as an example, it says.
In 2002, Elmhurst-based Chamberlain Group, a major maker of garage door openers, sued Canada-based Skylink Technologies, claiming it violated the DMCA.