Last week the panel investigating CBS’s botched reporting about President Bush’s military service released its report. The report was offered on the net in PDF format by CBS and its law firm. CBS was rightly commended for its openness in facing up to its past misbehavior and publicizing the report. Many bloggers, in commenting on the report and events that led to it, included quotes from the report.
Yesterday, Ernest Miller noticed that he could no longer copy and paste material from the report PDF into other documents. Seth Finkelstein confirmed that the version of the report on the CBS and law firm websites had been modified. The contents were the same but an Adobe DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) technology had been enabled, to prevent copying and pasting from the report. Apparently CBS (or its lawyers) wanted to make it harder for people to quote from the report.
This is yet another use of DRM that has nothing to do with copyright infringement. Nobody who wanted to copy the report as a whole would do so by copying and pasting – the report is enormous and the whole thing is available for free online anyway. The only plausible use of copy-and-paste is to quote from the report in order to comment, which is almost certainly fair use.
(CBS might reasonably have wanted to prevent modifications to the report file itself. They could have done this, within Adobe’s DRM system, without taking away the ability to copy-and-paste material from the file. But they chose instead to ban both modification and copy-and-paste.)
This sort of thing should not be a public policy problem; but the DMCA makes it one. If the law were neutral about DRM, we could just let the technology take its course. Unfortunately, U.S. law favors the publishers of DRMed material over would-be users of that material. For example, circumventing the DRM on the CBS report, in order to engage in fair-use commentary, may well violate the DMCA. (The DMCA has no fair-use exception, and courts have ruled that a DMCA violation can occur even if there is no copyright infringement.)
Worse yet, the DMCA may ban the tools needed to defeat this DRM technology. Dmitry Sklyarov was famously jailed by the FBI for writing a software tool that defeated this very same DRM technology; and his employer, Elcomsoft, was tried on criminal charges for selling fewer than ten copies of that tool.
As it turns out, the DRM can apparently be defeated easily by using Adobe’s own products. A commenter on Seth’s site (David L.) notes that he was able to turn off the restrictions using Adobe Acrobat: “The properties showed it set to password security. I was goofin around and changed it to No Security adn it turned off the security settings. I then saved the pdf and reopened it and the security was gone…. Apparently forging documents is not all that CBS sucks at.”
UPDATED (12:35 PM) to clarify: changed “cut-and-paste” to “copy-and-paste”, and added the parenthesized paragraph.