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Copy This

Well, the deck chairs have started moving, but nobody’s quite sure what it means. First, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a stunning set of rulings two weeks ago. These had to do with a particularly stinky part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that was rammed through Congress in the ’90s—a law that made it illegal to unlock “copyright protection” technologies. This absurd little law virtually wipes out any notion of fair use of copyrighted works, because it makes it illegal to simply get to copyright-protected works in the first place! It’s also a dangerous law insofar as it outlaws technologies in the name of copyright law. Predictably, the law has been routinely abused by Big Media companies seeking to stop folks from tinkering with their stuff, and utterly ignored by the hacker community, which proves day-in and day-out that “copyright protection technologies” are silly and doomed to fail.

Congress did leave a little door open: Citizens could petition the Copyright Office for exceptions to the law. If it could be demonstrated that disabling a “copyright protection technology” was in the “public interest,” the Copyright Office would grant an exception to the law. (People forget that copyright law was created to serve the public interest, and not the stockholders of Viacom and Disney.) The Copyright Office is mandated to issue these rulings every three years.

In the past, these exception rulings were so picayune or technically dense that most of us paid them little mind. In this round, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a bunch of academics got involved with the exemption requests, and two weeks ago a couple of bombs dropped.

If you’ve heard about this at all from the media, you’ve probably heard that there were Copyright Office rulings involving smartphones, jailbreaking, and the use of “unauthorized” apps. The mainstream media went nuts about this because both rulings were smackdowns of Apple, and there’s been this childish fever for Apple-bashing lately. I doubt either of these rulings will have much direct impact on anybody. As for jailbreaking (hacking the phone so it’s not tethered to a particular cellular company—in Apple’s case, AT&T), folks have been jailbreaking iPhones for a while now anyway; Apple’s reaction to the ruling was a shrug and a statement that jailbreaking would void an iPhone’s warranty. Now, one of the things we like about our Apple stuff is that, on the off chance it goes south on us, we can just take our broken stuff to the Apple store where nice people fix it all up, often for free. So, jailbreak away, kids. I’m chicken and I’m stayin’ put. As far as apps go, Apple hasn’t exactly been limiting developers in the app store and has mainly blocked only porn or apps that might destabilize your phone.

So, OK, jailbreak your iPhone and watch porn while talking on the Sprint network. Hope it works out for ya.

The much more interesting and important ruling allowed the copying of scrambled DVDs (and almost all commercial DVDs are scrambled) for use by educators, documentary filmmakers, and almost anybody who wants to remix a movie on a noncommercial basis. This is just freakin’ huge. As scholar Peter Jaszi points out on his ©ollectanea blog, the breadth of this exemption is remarkable, with the Copyright Office taking a very broad view of what fair use is for movies and who could take advantage of it. You know those great YouTube videos involving the scene from the German film Downfall? With Hitler reacting to everything from the breakup of Oasis to Cristiano Ronaldo going to play for Real Madrid? How they’ve been taken off of YouTube for “copyright violations”? Well, they ain’t copyright violations no more! You know the big scary warnings at the beginning of DVDs about how any copying or unauthorized use of the movie is punishable by torture, death and a fine of $750,000? Buh-bye!

The other big news involves Net neutrality. The FCC is struggling with whether it can and should impose rules ensuring equal access and pricing on the Internet in the face of opposition from the telecom industry and commercial interests. This week, Google and Verizon released a “joint proposal” that caused some excitable techies to scream about the “death of the Internet” but left most of us scratching our heads. What is being proposed is absolute Net neutrality for wired Internet, but not for wireless Internet. This is not good, because wireless is soon likely to be the dominant portal to the Internet. This is kind of like saying, “OK, we’ll protect typewriters, but not computers.”

What’s most stunning about this is the participation of Google, which one would think would be staunchly in favor of Net neutrality across all platforms. But then Google has been out in front on the expansion of things like municipal WiFi, where boatloads of money could be made with premium service tiers. But, like I said, nobody’s really sure what it all means. It makes my head hurt.

—Paul Rapp

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