The Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) launched a lawsuit against the U.S. government, on behalf of inventor and computer scientist Andrew “bunnie” Huang and cryptography professor Matthew Green, to overturn the Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The group believes that the section violates the First Amendment.
The anti-circumvention Section 1201 of the DMCA makes it unlawful for anyone to tinker with a purchased and owned electronic device and its software if it contains DRM code meant to restrict various uses of the device. This has created some problems for various groups, from farmers who could be banned from repairing their tractors, to security researchers who can’t (legally) analyze whether DRM software has security vulnerabilities and whether it puts computer systems or networks at risk.
The EFF argues that copyright laws are supposed to exist in harmony with the First Amendment, but that this provision of the DMCA has restricted the freedom of expression of inventors, academics, and researchers.
“The creative process requires building on what has come before, and the First Amendment preserves our right to transform creative works to express a new message, and to research and talk about the computer code that controls so much of our world,” said EFF Staff Attorney Kit Walsh. “Section 1201 threatens ordinary people with financial ruin or even a prison sentence for exercising those freedoms, and that cannot stand,” he also noted.
The company of Andrew “bunnie” Huang (Alphamax LLC), who is one of the plaintiffs represented by the EFF, is developing devices for editing video streams that people could use to create new innovations, such as captioning a presidential debate with a running Twitter comment field or enabling remixes of high-definition video. However, such uses could be considered unlawful under the Section 1201 of the DMCA.
The other plaintiff in the lawsuit is cryptography professor and security researcher Matthew Green, who thinks it should be legal for a person to try to understand how their computer or electronic device works. However, last year, he as well as many other security experts had to call on the Library of Congress to grant an exception to the DMCA for security research. Even if these exceptions are granted, they last only three years, after which the exception would have to be granted once again. However, it’s not guaranteed that whoever runs the Library of Congress at that time would be sympathetic to such views.
“The government cannot broadly ban protected speech and then grant a government official excessive discretion to pick what speech will be permitted, particularly when the rulemaking process is so onerous,” said Walsh.“If future generations are going to be able to understand and control their own machines, and to participate fully in making rather than simply consuming culture, Section 1201 has to go,” he added.