US copyright law places restrictions on what people can do with their purchases, but there are some important exemptions too.
The U.S. Copyright Office regularly reviews these exemptions to Section 1201 of the DMCA, which prevents the public from ‘tinkering’ with DRM-protected content and devices.
These provisions are renewed every three years after the Office hears input from stakeholders and the general public. This review also allows interested parties to suggest new exemptions.
For example, during the last update in 2018 a new exemption was added to allow libraries to bypass copyright restrictions in order to preserve games that require an online component.
Exemption for Jailbreaking Video Streaming Devices
This year the Copyright Office has received several new suggestions, which are currently under consideration. This includes a proposal from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which suggests an expansion of the current jailbreaking exemptions to include video streaming devices.
In previous years the Office already allowed the public to jailbreak smartphones, tablets, wearables, and smart TVs. According to the EFF, general video streaming devices should fit in the same category.
“Video streaming devices are functionally and architecturally identical to smart TVs, except that they are physically separate from the display itself, typically connecting to it through an input port,” EFF writes in its proposal.
By jailbreaking these devices, which include Roku boxes and Apple TV, the public will be able to “exercise full control” over them. That can enable valuable new features, such as adding a web browser and compatibility with other tools such as privacy-enhancing VPNs.
This proposal is supported by many digital rights activists, but the major copyright industry groups fiercely oppose the plan. This week a coalition including the RIAA, ESA, and Hollywood’s MPA urged the Copyright Office not to grant the exemption.
Copyright Holders Fear Widespread Piracy
The groups fear that jailbreaking will result in widespread copyright infringement, as it allows the public to install piracy tools on these video devices as well.
“Access controls on these devices are designed to prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works and subscription services, piracy of signals, and the copying of works,” the copyright holders write.
“Once circumvented, even for the ostensible purpose of first installing a lawful application, nothing prevents a user from later installing infringing applications or applications that enable infringement on these devices.”
The groups note that these concerns are not hypothetical. For example, MPA members have already addressed streaming box piracy in several lawsuits over the past years, mentioning the cases against TickBox TV and Dragon Box.
The United States Trade Representative has also focused on the pirate streaming box problem in recent ‘notorious markets’ reports, the rightsholders add. While that is true, it should be noted that this report is largely based on input from copyright holders.
Piracy Fears Outweigh Legitimate Uses
Nonetheless, Hollywood and other rightsholders urge the Copyright Office not to allow the circumvention of technical protection measures (TPMs) for video streaming devices. That would hurt copyright holders as well as artists and undermine the legitimate marketplace.
While the opposition letter doesn’t deny that there can be non-infringing uses, such as adding a browser or a custom screensaver, it classifies these as minor compared to the piracy threat.
“The lack of such functionalities in devices protected by TPMs is a mere inconvenience,” the copyright holder groups stress. “In the majority of instances, modification of software in devices is likely infringing.”
The Copyright Office will consider the arguments from all stakeholders during the months to come. After a public hearing later this year it will decide if any changes will be made to the current exemptions.
A copy of the letter sent by the Joint Creators and Copyright Owners is available here (pdf). EFF’s original proposal can be found here (pdf).