EFF details DMCA exemption cases for cars, abandonware

November 5, 2014 // 12:01 p.m.

Tags: #abandonware #copyright #dmca #drm

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has detailed requests it has made for two topics to be exempted from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA): unlocking digital rights management (DRM) technologies to allow people to repair and modified their cars, and support for modifying abandoned games for future use.

The DMCA was introduced with the ostensible goal of helping crack down on piracy and other instances of copyright infringement. Its critics, however, claim it is a sledgehammer used to crack a nut and includes sections which provide a chilling effect on both free speech, by requiring immediate take-downs of claimed-infringing content, and on the freedom of users to modify and investigate devices they legitimately own by making the bypassing of DRM technology for any reason illegal.

'The DMCA was supposed to help protect against copyright infringement, but it's been abused to interfere with all kinds of lawful activities that have nothing to do with infringement,' claimed the EFF's intellectual property director Corynne McSherry of the US law. 'Software is in all kinds of devices, from cars to coffee-makers to alarm clocks. If that software is locked down by DRM, it's likely that you can't tinker, repair, and re-use those objects without incurring legal risk.'

Of six requests for DMCA exemptions filed by the EFF this week, the group has detailed two in a blog post. The first was a request to have the right to unlock DRM used in automotive vehicles, so that legitimate owners can repair or modify their cars without having to go through a manufacturer-approved - and likely prohibitively expensive - route. Under Section 1201 of the DMCA, bypassing the DRM - even to repair your own car - is currently illegal.

The second request is likely to see more resistance from rights-holders: an exemption for computer games no longer produced or supported by their original creators. Known as 'abandonware,' these titles exist in a murky world where they are technically still held under copyright but by a party who does not provide any means of legitimately purchasing or using the software - something abandonware fans claim gives them carte blanche to download and play the titles for free.

The EFF's argument in this case is that some titles are physically impossible to play, even for legitimate owners, owing to multiplayer or authentication servers having been retired by the rights holders. Legitimate owners, who paid good money for the game when it was still supported, should have the right to modify the game to bypass check-ins with shut-down servers and other DRM systems that prevent legitimate copies for working once the rights holder has ceased support, the group claims. Currently, bypassing the DRM in this manner falls foul of the DMCA.

The DMCA allows for exemption applications to be made only once every three years, giving the EFF a short window to put forward its arguments.
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