Believe it or not, decisions made by the Librarian of Congress impact your day-to-day life.
Every 3 years, the Librarian of Congress gets to decide on exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA is a law passed in 2000 that harshly penalizes the circumvention of “technological protection measures,” often known as DRM, or Digital Restrictions Management. In other words, under the DMCA, you could face hefty fines or jail time if you jailbreak your smartphone or attempt to modify the software that powers your car.
On October 27, the Library of Congress handed down its latest list of exemptions to the DMCA. Among other exemptions, owners of motor vehicles and farm equipment are now legally free to modify the software embedded in these vehicles. Last spring, as the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office heard arguments for exemptions to the DMCA, the companies General Motors and John Deere both argued that, on some level, car and tractor owners don’t actually own the underlying software that’s built into their machines. The companies claim that they retain ownership of the software, simply granting a license for its use to the end user and that, as such, the “owner” of the vehicle is not entitled to make any changes to the software.
While we can be thankful that the latest DMCA exemptions have dealt a blow to the clouded corporate logic of GM and John Deere, the unfortunate fact remains that these exemptions only last 3 years. Every 3 years, everything is up for grabs again; even past exemptions must be newly argued for! The Free Software Foundation points out numerous problems with the current law. Hopefully Congress will act soon to reform the DMCA, a law which, in the name of protecting copyright, keeps people from being able to make full use of their own technology.