When we purchase something, we assume that the item becomes ours, to do with it as we so choose. That is the understanding and agreement that exists between buyer and seller in most transactions that take place. If you go to your local department store and buy a toaster and decide to run over it with your car in the driveway, that's your prerogative; the store certainly doesn't care, as they've achieved their goal of moving merchandise and collecting your money. But the digital age has ushered in a new type of product that now comes with rights and safeguards that go beyond the point of sale.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government over sections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The sections in dispute deal with the "access controls" widely know as "digital rights management" (DRM) that exist within copyrighted digital works. These controls are designed to prevent tampering with items that have DRM to prevent infringement. Notable examples of popular items that has DRM are DVDs and Blu-Rays, as well as much of the software found on the average computers.
While the DMCA was created with the intent of protecting digital copyrighed works, the bill also created unintended consequence. The DMCA looks to curb things like piracy by preventing people from ripping DVDs to their computer to upload online. But this raises the question as to whether an owner of a DVD should legally be able to upload a DVD to their computer for their own personal use.
The issues stretch far beyond putting copies of old DVDs onto your personal devices. The DMCA has been used as a cudgel to prevent tampering with a multitude of different machines that we encounter in our everyday lives. As The Guardian illustrates, the fact that our cars now come with on-board software means that we run the risk of manufacturers having a monopoly on parts and repair, at the expense of the independent mechanic. And the practice of deconstructing and analyzing both machines and software to understand their weaknesses and security flaws is by letter of the law prohibited; given how reticent large companies can be in admitting to mistakes, not having third parties to check these things is of concern to consumers.
The flawed nature of the DMCA is what prompted the EFF to take up the case of Andrew Huang and Matthew Green in challenging the government. Huang has created a device called the NeTV which allows users to overlay images onto HD videos, and wants to expand with a creation called NetVCR, which would allow users to record and edit digital videos in the same manner as you would with a video recorder. And Green is working on security research in medical records systems, which would require him to examine the devices and systems in place around much of the medical infrastructure, and bringing his work into the realm of infringement under the DMCA.
Ultimately at issue is previous DMCA rulings, which have prohibited uses that would otherwise be allowed under copyright law. These digital creations and the media in which they exist lie in the muddled intersection of conventional law surrounding copyrighted materials and a new frontier where the average citizen has both means and often need to alter and inspect the machines and software that now surround us. While a court ruling might take years, it could prove an important step in determining the future of copyright law for the digital age.