January 19, 2017

White House Statement on Cell Phone Unlocking: A First Step Toward DMCA Reform?

Yesterday, the White House officially responded to the online petition to “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal,” which garnered more than 100,000 signatures in under 30 days. The Administration’s headline was emphatic: “It’s Time to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking.” The tech press heralded this significant but symbolic first step in addressing some of the most egregious shortcomings of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I hope the White House’s response signals a new chapter in the struggle to regain the freedom to innovate, research, create, and tinker. Last week, I discussed the petition and its context with Derek Khanna, who has been a champion of the cause. You can watch the video here:

As Derek pointed out, this battle is connected to a much larger policy problem: the DMCA bans many practices that are good for society–and without clear counterbalancing benefits. Reading the White House statement, it is hard to tell whether the Administration appreciates this fact.
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Is Spotify the Celestial Jukebox for Music?

In 1994, law professor Paul Goldstein popularized the term “celestial jukebox” to refer to his vision of a networked database of consumable on-demand media. In the face of copyright law that was ill-suited to the rapid rate of technological change, he described a system in which consumers would pay-per-play rather than purchasing and owning individual works. In his book Copyright’s Highway, he predicted that, “the pace of technological development is so fast and the forces of market demand so strong that the celestial jukebox, however configured, will be in place sometime early in the twenty-first century.”

The explosion of broadband and mobile internet access has made that viable, and countless startups have taken a stab at implementing the vision. One of the biggest challenges for these companies has been compiling a library of licensed works that is comprehensive enough to attract a critical mass of users. In the music market, the pay-per-play model has generally given way to monthly subscription or ad-based models. I’ve been a casual user of Last.fm and Pandora, but my listening habits haven’t been fundamentally altered. That changed last week when I finally decided to try Spotify. Spotify may be the first real contender for a mainstream “celestial jukebox” of music. But is that a good thing?

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Who Killed the Open Set-Top-Box?

A few years ago, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With my trusty Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 I enjoyed the ability to watch and record Comcast TV on my desktop computer — and even to occasionally edit and re-upload it to YouTube along with fair use critical commentary. When I moved across the river to Boston, Comcast required me to pay for a set-top box that would tune channels on my television. However, when I plugged my PVR-150 into the cable connection, it got almost no channels at all. As it turns out, the Comcast system in Boston had been migrated to use mostly digital signals, but my tuner card worked only with analog cable signals. Fair enough, I thought, I’ll buy a digital cable tuner. As it turned out, that wouldn’t help much. The cable companies had implemented encryption to fight “service theft” of most channels that subscribers had not paid for. As a result, I lost the ability to view channels I had paid for on a device of my choosing.
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