It’s that time again. Ars Technica reports that the Copyright Office is accepting petitions on activities to exempt from the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions, making it legal to crack DRM for certain restricted purposes.
We’ve reported on this procedure a few times over the last few years. The way it goes is that various people or organizations make proposals and the copyright office considers whether to grant them for the next three years. The exemptions then have to be requested again at the next session if they are to continue.
Public Knowledge will be submitting requests to legalize consumer ripping of DVDs and to allow circumvention of DRM locks on 3D printers. I’m not holding my breath. DVD-ripping exemptions have been requested a number of times, but so far the only one that has been granted is for schools to be able to use clips from DVDs for educational purposes.
Here’s a crazy thought: if the Big Five publishers knew what they were doing, they would be submitting and throwing their weight behind a petition to permit consumers to crack e-book DRM for purposes of archival and platform interoperability. Think about it. Publishers already full well know their insistence on DRM effectively handed Amazon the keys to the kingdom, and their conflict with Amazon has come to a head over the last few months with the Amazon/Hachette squabble. What better time to ask the government to permit consumers to break the Amazon shackles?
This would be a way for publishers to have their cake and eat it, too. They could continue to put DRM on their books, placating authors who fear piracy, and it would continue to be illegal to crack DRM for pirate purposes. And what would it really change? It would only legalize something a lot of consumers already do illegally. It’s not as if they’re even trying to hunt down and prosecute people who crack DRM illegally anyway, unless they do something stupid like upload watermarked books to peer-to-peer.
Even though it probably wouldn’t actually change much in the real world, at least not right away (most consumers frankly don’t care about DRM and will continue to be happy buying from the store they use already), it would nonetheless future-proof their purchases and make it easier to move between stores for customers who did want to.
And it would still have far more benefits than just letting Apprentice Alf-users feel better about what they already do. With legalized DRM-cracking for interoperability, e-book stores could set up their own DRM-cracking import services for the people who aren’t tech-savvy enough to set up Calibre themselves. Want to move all your e-books from your Amazon library to Barnes & Noble, or Kobo? Just drag and drop the files from your “My Kindle E-Books” directory onto this uploading app and we’ll take care of everything for you! Who knows, it might even make it possible for other e-book stores to compete with Amazon if you could make it almost as easy for customers to switch away from them and keep their libraries as it is to keep using them.
E-book stores do go out of business. Embiid did. Fictionwise and eReader did when B&N shut them down. (B&N imported as many of their titles into its Nook library as it could, but didn’t have the rights to do so for many backlist titles.) In those cases, customers could only download a copy of the software and their titles before the site went down, and hope they didn’t ever lose them in a disk crash. JManga did—and customers didn’t even have the ability to download titles from them at all! With cracking DRM legalized for archival, customers would know for certain that they could always crack and back up their titles against such an eventuality. (Really, who knows how long for this world the Nook is—or Kobo if they’re serious that dropping agency pricing in Canada would do them in?)
And one last reason why the Big Five should be backing this idea: it would also be some great free publicity, and a chance for them to get more column-inches they could use to harangue Amazon and play the good guys. (Not that I’m for them doing that, but if it would lead to something so beneficial to everyone in the long run, I’d put up with it.) It would certainly be a lot less expensive than taking out an ad in the New York Times!
That said, I don’t expect the publishers are on the ball enough to think of this, or that they would want to take what they’d see as a risk of “weakening” DRM by requesting cracking it to be legalized in any circumstances at all. Fortunately, as it turns out anyone can submit a proposal by filling out a simple Word template and submitting it. The submission deadline is Monday, November 3. So even if the publishers don’t want to ask for it, there’s no reason we couldn’t. (For more information, see the Copyright Office’s website about the rulemaking, and the Federal Register notice about what they’re looking for.)
I’m thinking I might just sit down this weekend and bang out a few paragraphs on why e-book DRM-cracking for legal uses should be legalized. If you feel like it, you could do the same. (Hey, Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath? Why don’t you load that template into Google Docs and bang something out yourselves? It worked so well with your petition letter, after all…)