A Few Limits on Copyright

Until a few days ago, most of us did not know that the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 empowers/requires the Librarian of Congress to “determine whether there are any classes of works that will be subject to exemptions from the statute’s prohibition against circumvention of technology that effectively controls access to a copyrighted work” (U.S. Copyright Office 2010). But it does.

And here’s what’s changed as a result of James H. Billington’s tri-ennial interpretation.

(1) College professors (in general) and students (in film and media studies, at least) can circumvent DVD security measures to include snippets of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment for educational purposes. A similar exemption exists for documentary filmmaking and noncommercial videos.

(2) You can hack programs on your phone if the purpose is to get programs you have legally obtained to work together. This is interpreted to mean you can “jailbreak” an iPhone and load non-Apple apps.

(3) You can hack programs on your phone if the purpose is connect it to a telecommunications network you are authorized to connect to. In other words, you can hack your Iphone so it works on Verizon.

(4) You can hack a video game you own if it’s just for testing or fixing security flaws as long as you don’t use the information you get from the process to help folks violate copyright.


(5) If you own software that’s protected by a dongle and you can’t use it because the dongle is broken and no replacement available then you can hack the software to get around the dongle.

(6) If you have an ebook and all existing ebook editions disable read-aloud, then you can hack it to make it read-aloud. In other words, if the copyright owner doesn’t offer to sell a read-aloud enabled version then you can break the controls that prevent read-aloud on a copy you own. Note that it seems that the publisher could offer for sale a million dollar read-aloud-enabled version to get around this. Presumably, the exception won’t unravel retroactively — the question will be was the read-aloud-enabled version available on the day you hacked the control.


U.S. Copyright Office. 2010. “Statement of the Librarian of Congress Relating to Section 1201 Rulemaking.”

Wortham, Jenna. 2010. “In Ruling on iPhones, Apple Loses a Bit of Its Grip,” New York Times July 26.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com. I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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