The Library of Congress issues new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Go Ahead, Jailbreak Your Smartphone

By Jennifer Howard

The Library of Congress shook up the copyright world today with a major new round of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. Every three years, the librarian of Congress issues a list of what’s exempted from the statute’s ban on circumventing the digital-rights management technology that controls access to copyrighted material. In today’s statement, James Billington, the librarian, listed six classes of works that will be subject to exemptions, depending on what users want to do with them.

The six classes include motion pictures on DVD’s, as long as they’re “legally made and acquired” and as long as the circumventing is done for educational, documentary, or nonprofit uses. That gives the green light to professors or film/media-studies students who want to incorporate “short portions of new movies into short works for the purpose of criticism or comment,” Mr. Billington’s statement said.

Another category now subject to exemptions from the DMCA ban is e-books. Users may work around e-books’ access-control technology if it prevents them from enabling the read-aloud function or from putting the text into a specialized reading format.

Mr. Billington’s statement also listed computer programs that allow smartphones “to execute software applications.” If the user wants to circumvent those programs in order to get legally obtained applications to work together, that’s now all right, the statement said. Observers concluded that jailbreaking an iPhone—getting the device to run applications not sanctioned by the manufacturer—is no longer verboten.

The Ars Technica blog concluded that “Apple loses big” under the new exemptions. “This time, the library went (comparatively) nuts,” it said, “allowing widespread bypassing of the CSS encryption on DVD’s, declaring iPhone jailbreaking to be ‘fair use,’ and letting consumers crack their legally purchased e-books in order to have them read aloud by computers.”

Watch for reactions from smartphone manufacturers and from publishers. Meanwhile, advocates for less-restrictive digital-rights management celebrated the announcement. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbied for some of the new exemptions, posted a statement celebrating what it called “new legal protections for video artists, cellphone jailbreakers, and unlockers.” 

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