- Despite vocal opposition from free-speech advocates, a controversial law that makes it illegal to provide information on how to bypass copyright protection controls was lent added weight by a US federal appeals court decision last week, marking a decisive victory for copyright holders.
The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was further bolstered Wednesday when a New York federal appeals court upheld a ruling that prohibits publishing or linking to code that cracks DVD (digital versatile disc) encryption.
In the case, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) sued hacker magazine 2600:The Hacker Quarterly for publishing and, via its website, linking to a DVD descrambling source code called DeCSS (De Contents Scramble System). The major movie studios represented by the MPAA claimed that the distribution of DeCSS threatened their copyright protection and was illegal under the DMCA.
For its part, 2600 claimed that publishing the code, which was originally written to allow DVDs to be used on Linux-based systems, was not illegal given that "fair use" doctrines state that copyright material can be used by the public for noncommercial purposes.
The decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the MPAA, however, throwing weight behind the DMCA and extinguishing hopes by some of getting protection for computer code under free-speech provisions provided by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
In a related battle involving the DMCA, a New Jersey federal district court threw out a case yesterday that Princeton Professor Edward Felten and his research team lodged against the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) and the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) organization last June, seeking permission to publish encryption code-cracking research without fear of reprisal.
The suit was filed after Felten said that he was threatened by the RIAA with legal action if he presented his findings from a SDMI hacking challenge, although the RIAA has repeatedly stated since then that it has no problem with Felten publishing his research findings.
The court threw out the suit on the basis that there was no conflict, an RIAA representative says.
"We are happy that the court recognised what we have been saying all along. There is no dispute here. As we have said time and again Professor Felten is free to publish his findings," RIAA general counsel in the case Cary Sherman said in a statement.
Although the case was dismissed, the controversy surrounding the DMCA still remains and the battle between copyright holders and free speech advocates is likely to rage on.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which represented Felten in the case, expressed dismay at the court's decision Wednesday and said that it would be appealing the verdict.
"This judge apparently believes that the fact that hundreds of scientists are currently afraid to publish their work and that scientific conferences are relocating overseas isn't a problem," EFF Intellectual Property Attorney Robin Gross said in a statement. "This decision is clearly contrary to settled First Amendment law."
While copyright holders have emerged victorious in these two cases, it remains to be seen if the DMCA will withstand further scrutiny. Other cases involving the hotly debated act, such as that of Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, who was jailed last July after presented material on eBook encryption, are still winding through the courts.