Fair use exception allows producers to legally break DVD copy protection

The federal government added new “fair use” exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) last week that include the ability to legally circumvent DVD copy protection in certain applications.

The DMCA is a controversial U.S. copyright law that criminalized attempts to bypass copyright, access control technologies or digital rights management (DRM) measures. The exemptions now provide protections for “fair use” in several new circumstances.

Now, documentary film and video producers, film students and college professors can legally break copy-protection measures on DVDs, allowing them to embed clips for educational purposes, criticism and commentary into their videos and film works.

By previously not permitting this activity, the law had stifled the ability for producers to tell their stories and for educators to simply do their jobs without fear of repercussions. The changes also may mean many more fan-made videos are not taken down from websites, such as YouTube.

The new exceptions will also ease the production and use of a new generation of electronic books. An e-book’s read-aloud function and the use a screen reader with an e-book is now allowed, even when built-in access controls prevent them from being used.

The changes also permit the breaking of technical protections on video games so users can investigate or correct security flaws. Among the most popular exemptions is the now legalized process of “jailbreaking” mobile telephones. This refers to hacking a smartphone in order to gain access to additional features or install unapproved applications.

Also included are protections that would allow owners to use their mobile devices on different wireless networks — a practice known as “unlocking” a phone — plus exemptions that allow the bypassing of external security measures on computers in when dongles are used.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), a digital advocacy group, had been lobbying for these changes for some time due to the overly broad language used previously in the DMCA legislation. The law requires an ongoing list of exceptions for so-called fair use activities in order to stay current with the rapidly-changing technology of the Internet era.

The U.S. Copyright Office and the Library of Congress announced the changes last week.