For astronomers, it might be once in a few million years when a key comet comes back around. For a soccer-crazed world, it’s every four years until the World Cup is back in play. For library-focused copyright “geeks” the not-really-magic-at-all interval is 3 years. That’s how often librarians, educators, disabled persons, internet security researchers, technologists, businesses and anyone else who needs access to copyrighted digital information secured with digital locks has to apply for special exemptions from Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). That’s the part of the law that prohibits the “circumvention” of “technological protection measures” (TPMs) employed by the owners of copyrighted works to block unauthorized access to them.
Unfortunately, TPMs also block perfectly lawful uses that don’t require prior authorization, such as fair uses for education or journalism or converting text to speech for the print disabled. Nonetheless, it’s still an actual crime under the DMCA to circumvent TPMs even if the eventual use of the protected material is perfectly legal unless a specific exemption to circumvent (i.e., pick the digital lock) for that otherwise lawful use has been granted! To make matters worse, even once the expensive and time consuming case for an exemption has been made successfully, the recipient of the exemption has to make the case in full to the U.S. Copyright Office all over again every three years.
ALA, in tandem with other library organizations, has actively participated in this so-called “Triennial Rulemaking” process at every opportunity since the DMCA was passed in 1998. This time around, in conjunction with the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and Association of Research Libraries (ARL), ALA is pursuing the renewal of two critical exemptions. One has permitted the circumvention of TPMs that otherwise would prevent educators from incorporating film excerpts into their lectures and curricula. The second allows TPMs to be worked around so that e-reader devices may be freely used by the print disabled to convert digitally “locked” text into accessible speech. Many others have filed for a wide range of other exemptions to facilitate all kinds of valuable commercial and non-commercial activities. Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have helpfully created and will maintain this online repository for all filings made in the 2015 Rulemaking.
The latest Triennial Rulemaking is just getting going, but libraries will continue to lobby Congress and the Copyright Office for sensible changes to the rulemaking process that would alleviate some of the significant and senseless burdens placed upon those who seek exemption renewal, particularly in the absence of any opposition. With luck, it won’t take until a comet comes around again for such common-sense changes to be made.