June 27, 2017

Jailbreaking Copyright's Extended Scope

A bit late for the rule’s “triennial” cycle, the Librarian of Congress has released the sec 1201(a)(1)(C) exceptions from the DMCA prohibitions on circumventing copyright access controls. For the next three years, people will not be ” circumventing” if they “jailbreak” or unlock their smartphones, remix short portions of motion pictures on DVD (if they are college and university professors or media students, documentary filmmakers, or non-commercial video-makers), research the security of videogames, get balky obsolete dongled programs to work, or make an ebook read-aloud. (I wrote about the hearings more than a year ago, when the movie studios demoed camcording a movie — that didn’t work to stop the exemption.)

Since I’ve criticized the DMCA’s copyright expansion, I was particularly interested in the inter-agency debate over EFF’s proposed jailbreak exemption. Even given the expanded “para-copyright” of anticircumvention, the Register of Copyrights and NTIA disagreed over how far the copyright holder’s monopoly should reach. The Register recommended that jailbreaking be exempted from circumvention liability, while NTIA supported Apple’s opposition to the jailbreak exemption.

According to the Register (PDF), Apple’s “access control [preventing the running of unapproved applications] does not really appear to be protecting any copyright interest.” Apple might have had business reasons for wanting to close its platform, including taking a 30% cut of application sales and curating the iPhone “ecosystem,” those weren’t copyright reasons to bar the modification of 50 bytes of code.

NTIA saw it differently. In November 2009, after receiving preliminary recommendations from Register Peters, Asst. Secretary Larry Strickling wrote (PDF):

NTIA does not support this proposed exemption [for cell phone jailbreaking]…. Proponents argue that jailbreaking will support open communications platforms and the rights of consumers to take maximum advantage of wireless networks and associated hardware and software. Even if permitting cell phone “jailbreaking” could facilitate innovation, better serve consumers, and encourage the market to utilize open platforms, it might just as likely deter innovation by not allowing the developer to recoup its development costs and to be rewarded for its innovation. NTIA shares proponents’ enthusiasm for open platforms, but is concerned that the proper forum for consideration of these public policy questions lies before the expert regulatory agencies, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress.

The debate affects what an end-user buys when purchasing a product with embedded software, and how far copyright law can be leveraged to control that experience and the market. Is it, as Apple would have it, only the right to use the phone in the closed “ecosystem” as dictated by Apple, with only exit (minus termination fees) if you don’t like it there? or is it a building block, around which the user can choose a range of complements from Apple and elsewhere? In the first case, we see the happenstance of software copyright locking together a vertically integrated or curated platform, forcing new entrants to build the whole stack in order to compete. In the second, we see opportunities for distributed innovation that starts at a smaller scale: someone can build an application without Apple’s approval, improving the user’s iPhone without starting from scratch.

NTIA would send these “public policy” questions to Congress or the Department of Justice (antitrust), but the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress properly handled them here. “[T]he task of this rulemaking is to determine whether the availability and use of access control measures has already diminished or is about to diminish the ability of the public to engage in noninfringing uses of copyrighted works similar or analogous to those that the public had traditionally been able to make prior to the enactment of the DMCA,” the Register says. Pre-DMCA, copyright left room for reverse engineering for interoperability, for end-users and complementors to bust stacks and add value. Post-DMCA, this exemption helps to restore the balance toward noninfringing uses.

In a related vein, economists have been framing research into proprietary strategies for two-sided markets, in which a platform provider is mediating between two sets of users — such as iPhone’s end-users and its app developers. In their profit-maximizing interests, proprietors may want to adjust both price and other aspects of their platforms, for example selecting fewer app developers than a competitive market would support so each earns a scarcity surplus it can pay to Apple. But just because proprietors want a constrained environment does not mean that the law should support them, nor that end-users are better off when the platform-provider maximizes profits. Copyright protects individual works against unauthorized copying; it should not be an instrument of platform maintenance — not even when the platform is or includes a copyrighted work.