In a rare display of actual common sense, US copyright law has been tweaked to allow the breaking of copy protection for fair use. Specifically, users can crack DVD DRM for video mash-ups, and jailbreak iPhones.
Stand by for some acronyms: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has successfully persuaded the US Copyright Office to end legal protection for certain types of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). DRM is code that locks music, video, a phone or any other product in some way. The DMCA made it illegal to crack that code.
Today's ruling makes it legal to circumvent DRM in six instances: Americans can rip a short section of a legally-obtained DVD for education or criticism; they can open up or 'jailbreak' their phone; unlock it for use on a different network; crack video game DRM for testing; avoid dongle DRM when the dongles become obsolete; and can turn ebooks into audio books by having software read them aloud.
Jailbreakin' the law
Unlocking your phone is easy in this country: on most high streets there are shops which offer the service -- and also sell luggage, for some reason.
Apple is specifically targetted by the jailbreaking ruling in the US. Jailbreaking your iPhone means you can install apps and software from anywhere, and not just the apps approved by Apple. Apple claims it's illegal, but Apple says a lot of things.
Apple will no doubt continue to make it tricky for jailbreakers to hack their phones -- and it will still void your warranty faster than you can say "I heart Steve Jobs" -- but the ruling means alternative app outlets like Cydia could be that little bit more legitimate in the US.
The ruling also says it's OK for Yanks to rip DVDs to create "new works for the purpose of criticism or comment", for educational use in documentary filmmaking and non-commercial videos. The EFF reckons this covers mash-ups like the famous Downfall meme. No doubt Hitler's reaction to today's news is being prepared in a bunker somewhere.
It's our understanding that here in Blighty, circumventing technical measures remains an offence, even in the case of exceptions like educational use. We've contacted the British government's Intellectual Property Office for comment -- we'll keep you posted.
Update: The IPO has "declined to comment". We're not sure what the point is of a government body that declines to provide guidance on the legal issues it purports to deal with, but hey ho. Maybe they're all too busy watching Downfall videos on YouTube.
Image: Intellectual Property Office