| Thursday April 24th 2014

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Federal judge says you can break DRM if you’re not doing so to infringe copyright


Here’s some remarkable news: a judge in a New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Appeals Court has ruled that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s ban on breaking DRM only applies if you break DRM in order to violate copyright law. DRM sucksThis is a complete reversal of earlier rulings across the country (and completely opposite to the approach that the US Trade Representative has demanded from America’s trading partners). In the traditional view, DRM is absolutely protected, so that no one is allowed to break it except the DRM maker. In other words, a film-maker isn’t allowed to take the BluRay DRM off her own movie, a video game programmer can’t take the iPad DRM off her own game, and an audiobook author can’t take the DRM off his own Audible book.

So this ruling is pretty interesting news, as it constitutes a circuit split with pretty much the rest of the nation’s courts, which is often a precursor to a Supreme Court challenge. What’s more, the defendants here are General Electric, not hackers in black t-shirts or sketchy offshore Xbox-modchip vendors (theoretically the law shouldn’t care if the defendant is a hobo or a billionaire, but in practice, billionaires usually get better precedents, and not just because they can afford better lawyers).


It’s up to the plaintiff, MGE, to appeal to the Supremes, but even if they don’t, it’s only a matter of time until there are new cases in the Fifth Circuit (or other circuits that follow its lead) that lead to highest court handing down some new law on this. Let’s hope they see the sense of Judge Garza: “Merely bypassing a technological protection that restricts a user from viewing or using a work is insufficient to trigger the (Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s) anti-circumvention provision.”

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