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The DMCA, Computer Code, Fair Use, and the First Amendment: A Case Study in Universal City Studios v. Corley

-- By BrianS - 11 Nov 2009

Universal City Studios v. Corley

In Universal City Studios v. Corley, the Second Circuit analyzed the program DeCSS? under the DMCA and considered the DMCA's relationship to the First Amendment and fair use. See also Paramount Pictures Corp. v. 321 (link connects to Findlaw PDF). In essay, I argue that Corley reached the wrong result and that the DMCA cannot be separated from considerations of fair use and the First Amendment.

First, in discussing the proper scope of First Amendment protection to afford computer code, the court observed that anyone who possesses property rights "is entitled to prohibit access . . . by unauthorized persons." It noted that homeowners can padlock their doors, stores can attach alarms to merchandise, and those keeping valuable objects can place them in a safe. It then considered CSS as imposing a similar protection for DVDs. The analogy suggests that movies are the valuables, copyright holders are the property right possessors, and CSS is the padlock on the front door. This comparison, although facially appealing, is flawed for at least one central reason: there is no doctrine of fair use for burglary but there is for copyright law. While a homeowner is not required to give his neighbor a key to his front door so that the neighbor can browse the homeowner's belongings, fair use empowers authors to innovate in certain ways using property held by another.

The Second Circuit neatly avoided this concern by concluding that "nothing in the injunction prohibits [appellants] from making [] fair use [of copyrighted materials]. They are barred from trafficking in a decryption code that enables unauthorized access to copyrighted materials." The problem is that encryption-breaking programs and the speech that would result from decrypted media cannot be neatly separated; when media is broadly encrypted, you cannot have the relevant speech without the decryption. Both the district court and the Second Circuit dismissed this concern based on a lack of evidence that the DMCA is in fact inhibiting people's speech. This approach ignores the fundamental doctrine in First Amendment law that where an act threatens to chill speech the act is problematic. The DMCA's power to permit heavy civil fines and even imprisonment significantly threaten to chill speech. There is mounting evidence that the DMCA's chilling effect is very real.

The court also rejected the claim that the DMCA limited fair use by asserting that individuals wishing to make fair use of something could simply use versions other than DVD, such as recording the video feed using a video camera aimed at the television or monitor.* Those overlooks, among other things, that movies are not always widely-released on VHS at this stage in history. People who wish to innovate using another's work do not necessarily even own VHS players. The court's fundamental assertion that to make a fair use, you must use an obsolete format is striking in light of fair use's stated purpose: [to advance quote]. While the court was likely correct in finding that fair use does not require works be made available in a specific format, it should at least enter into the analysis that many formats are not available,

The court also correctly noted that "government regulation of expressive activity is 'content neutral' if it is justified without reference to the content of regulated speech." Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703, 720 (2000).

Finally, the court's comparison to the First Amendment standard described in United States v. O'Brien overlooks an essential difference between the facts of O'Brien and the facts in Corley. Further, the court's suggestion that the DMCA is "unrelated to the suppression of free expression" is also puzzling; a central purpose of the DMCA is to help prevent the dissemination of expression by restricting access by pirates.


As lawyers, scholars, and Congress itself have noted, the DMCA's protections "have little, if anything, to do with copyright law.” See, e.g., David Nimmer, A Riff on Fair Use in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, 148 U. Pa. L. Rev. 673, 686 n.66 (2000). They are instead a form of paracopyright, id., an expansion in the protections rights-holders may claim and one that operates to significantly restrict downstream user rights under the fair use doctrine. By restricting production and access to circumvention tools, the DMCA stops less sophisticated fair users while largely failing to stop the most "dangerous" infringers, those that are significantly motivated and sophisticated. See, e.g., DRM: The State of Disrepair, (Feb. 16, 2007).

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r3 - 14 Nov 2009 - 06:23:00 - BrianS
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