Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thoughts on the DMCA exemption process

On Friday, we sent off our 11 page reply letter to the Copyright Office, in response to the questions they sent us regarding our Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemption requests for DRM abandon-ware.

There is a semi-decent chance that I will be either employed or engaged in consulting work half-time starting in September, which could make it difficult for me to blog (particularly given the style and tone that I tend to use). Thus, I want to take this opportunity now, while I still have the freedom to fully express my thoughts, to reflect on this process, and thank the many who assisted me.

First, I originally had the idea for the exemption request in May or so of last year. In the process of writing a law paper on the hacking of subsidized electronic goods by consumers, I spent a lot of time studying the cell-phone unlocking exemption that Jennifer Granick had won back in 2006. I think it would be fair to say I was inspired by her actions.

The DMCA process is one of the few ways through which an individual can actually make a difference to impact federal cyber law and copyright policy. It doesn't matter how many former Senate staffers you have working for your cause, nor are donations to PACs a necessary requirement for access. As someone with both a desire to make a difference, and a lack of money/access, the appeal was clear.

Writing up the request

My exemption submission simply wouldn't have been possible without the assistance of a skilled legal team, lead by Phil Malone at the Harvard cyberlaw clinic. While lay-persons do submit requests every year, they are never taken seriously (and when you read some of them, you understand why). The process is fairly straight-forward, but still requires some knowledge of the specifics of the DMCA.

I had the idea for both the consumer and researcher exemptions, and probably provided around 50-60% of the text in the original exemption request comment and in our reply letter. After reading Slashdot every day for the past 14 years, it was easy for me to dig up citations to all the past instances of failed media stores, a task which would have taken a clinical intern significanly more time.

I gather that most clinical clients do not participate as much, nor directly contribute as much to the final work product. However, since I know the DMCA fairly well, and knew the specifics of situation which we were examining, I think my participation helped quite a bit. Plus, it is (for a copyright policy geek) quite a fun activity.

However -- my participation alone was not enough. Phil Malone and Arjun Mehra turned my rantings of repeated industry abuse and a plea for relief into a compelling legal document. To be clear -- while I strongly encourage technologists and copyright activists to get involved with the DMCA exemption process, you really are wasting your time without the assistance of tech-savvy lawyers.

Arguing for the exemptions in DC

Before going to DC in May to argue in-person for my exemption requests, I went to a Federal Trade Commission town-hall focused on DRM. This event was something of a trial run, with many of the same characters who would later show up in DC.

The industry folks who argued on behalf of DRM at that event, were frankly, clueless shills masquerading as experts, and as such, they seemed to do a good enough job revealing their ignorance that I didn't need to do much to help.

As one copyright expert tried to warn me ahead of time, most of the people at the FTC town hall were on the "B-team", while the industry would make sure to send the "A-team" to the DMCA exemption hearing.

Unfortunately, I didn't really listen to him, and so when I did go to Washington to argue for my exemptions before the Copyright Office, I was a tad bit over-confident.

An important note for future copyright geeks: If you are considering asking for a DMCA exemption, and end up arguing for it in person, do not under-estimate Steve Metalitz, the industry's main attack dog on DMCA related issues. He is very good, and very quick on his feet. Unless you are a seasoned lawyer, do not allow him to drag you into the weeds in a discussion of the specifics of copyright law -- stick to issues of consumer harm and industry abuse.

The hearing itself was thrilling, exciting, and sort of like a court room -- with a panel of judges (well, copyright office lawyers) on a podium at the front of the room, and with the "good guys" (me) and the "bad guys" (Metalitz and someone from Time Warner) at two tables, seperated by an aisle.

My only real regret from the hearing was not having a hot-shot lawyer sit next to me, who I could defer to on legal related questions. It wasn't until the hearing was over that I looked back, and saw that both Wendy Seltzer and Fred von Lohmann had snuck into the hearing after it started, and had thus been watching it from the back row.

While I handled things pretty well, on questions relating to the specifics of section 1201, I wasn't as strong. Luckily, the Copyright Office attorneys didn't really hammer me with legal questions, and focused the questions on topics that I could actually provide expert testimony.

A word on timing and legal clinics

A DMCA exemption is a perfect, small, self-contained project for Law School legal clinics. Exemption requests are due in the fall, optional reply comments are due in the spring, the hearings are in the late spring, and then question reply comments are due over the summer. The entire process, from start to finish, is over in less than 9 months. Furthermore, it is something that can be done by a single (supervised) clinical intern.

As a result, it is not terribly surprising that university law clinics are now playing an increasingly prominent role in the DMCA exemption process.

In 2009, 3 different groups of exemptions were sought by individuals represented by the Harvard cyberlaw clinic, the Samuelson-­Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic at the University of Colorado School of Law, and the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic at the Washington College of Law, American University. Clinics have played a similarly strong role in previous years.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that the copyright office realizes the role that these clinics play (and the students who provide the manpower). As a result, the DMCA exemption hearings were scheduled for May 1 at Stanford, and May 6,7, 8 in Washington DC. For those of you not (or no longer) in academia -- this is right before, or during the middle of final exams for many law students.

Had the copyright office scheduled the hearings two or three weeks earlier, they would have made the lives of the clinical students much easier. I know from my own experience that it was very difficult to get much in the way of time as I tried to prepare for the hearings from Arjun Mehra (my clinical student) and Phil Malone (who teaches classes in addition to his role running the clinic, and thus had class projects and term papers to grade).

Likewise, sending out questions during the middle of the summer, when the clinical students are off working internships is not particularly helpful. Luckily, Berkman has a few fantastic students who are interning at our cyberlaw clinic for the summer. As a result, I was able to get the help of another fantastic clinical student, Rachel Gozhansky, who helped in drafting our reply to the Copyright Office's questions.

I am not sure if the two other clinics were able to gather the student summer labor necessary in order to work on the responses to the copyright office's questions.

Given the increasingly important role that law school clinics are playing in the DMCA process, I hope that the Copyright Office will consider the realities of the academic calendar for future DMCA exemption rulemakings.

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