Unintended Consequences: Twelve Years under the DMCA
Fred Von Lohmann Electronic Frontier Foundation February 2010
This document collects reported cases where the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA have been invoked not against pirates, but against consumers, scientists, and legitimate competitors. It will be updated from time to time as additional cases come to light. Previous versions remain available.
Since they were enacted in 1998, the "anti-circumvention" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA"), codified in section1201 of the Copyright Act, have not been used as Congress envisioned. Congress meant to stop copyright infringers from defeating anti-piracy protections added to copyrighted works and to ban the "black box" devices intended for that purpose.
In practice, the anti-circumvention provisions have been used to stifle a wide array of legitimate activities, rather than to stop copyright infringement. As a result, the DMCA has developed into a serious threat to several important public policy priorities:
- The DMCA Chills Free Expression and Scientific Research. Experience with section 1201 demonstrates that it is being used to stifle free speech and scientific research. The lawsuit against 2600 magazine, threats against Princeton Professor Edward Felten's team of researchers, and prosecution of Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov have chilled the legitimate activities of journalists, publishers, scientists, students, programmers, and members of the public.
- The DMCA Jeopardizes Fair Use. By banning all acts of circumvention, and all technologies and tools that can be used for circumvention, the DMCA grants to copyright owners the power to unilaterally eliminate the public's fair use rights. Already, the movie industry's use of encryption on DVDs has curtailed consumers' ability to make legitimate, personal-use copies of movies they have purchased.
- The DMCA Impedes Competition and Innovation. Rather than focusing on pirates, some have wielded the DMCA to hinder legitimate competitors. For example, the DMCA has been used to block aftermarket competition in laser printer toner cartridges, garage door openers, and computer maintenance services. Similarly, Apple has used the DMCA to tie its iPhone and iPod devices to Apple's own software and services.
- The DMCA Interferes with Computer Intrusion Laws. Further, the DMCA has been misused as a general-purpose prohibition on computer network access, a task for which it was not designed and to which it is ill-suited. For example, a disgruntled employer used the DMCA against a former contractor for simply connecting to the company's computer system through a virtual private network ("VPN").