Every Three Years

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a sweeping piece of legislation passed in 1998, prohibits the circumvention of copyright controls, known as Technological Protection Measures (TPM). The aim of this prohibition is to prevent users from defeating TPMs to infringe on copyright. There are various measures in place, especially as newer media technologies emerged since 2000, and cracking them is not only difficult, it is actually illegal, even if you don’t infringe on any specific copyrights.

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress decides which uses are non-infringing and permits specific exemptions to the anti-circumvention provision. I first became involved with this triennial review on the eve of the 2006 rule-making process. At the time, media scholars and teaching faculty were legally hamstrung in extracting short clips and screen captures from copy-protected DVDs for teaching film and television classes at a college or university level. DVDs offered a better source than a film print or a videocassette for two major reasons: efficiency and fidelity.

  1. DVDs offered a convenient package for us to extract clips and frame grabs. With a DVD, we would use a computer’s optical drive to extract clips. We could easily skip to a scene and take what we needed in a short amount of time. In the few times I took frame enlargements from a 16mm print, the process could take as little as a few days but would often take over a week. It would also be expensive because I had to buy 35mm film, pay to have it processed and printed. With a DVD, I could grab what I needed in a matter of minutes at almost no cost.
  2. DVDs offered higher fidelity than what was available on videocassette and on some film prints. Not only does a DVD offer many more lines of resolution than a videocassette or look better than a beat-up film print, extracting a clip or a frame is an entirely digital process. We don’t have to resort to an analog conversion and the attendant generation loss. The image would look as sharp as it did on the DVD.

Well-written laws need to respond to their current historical moment. For example, college and university faculty have received an exemption from TPM on DVDs since 2006 for making clips, but today, most of us look online first for videos.1 We need to expand the exemption to allow us to circumvent online video, as a public interest group, documentary filmmakers, librarians, and educators have all argued.

Moreover, the EFF (aka the “good guys”) have filed several briefs on behalf advocating for additional exemptions. Most of these exemptions account for emerging technologies that seemed fantastic fifteen years ago at the dawn of the millennium but are very real today. Some of the exemptions the EFF is seeking to secure include:

  • Accessing onboard computers on vehicles for research and repair.
  • Creating video remixes from locked videos on disks and from streaming sites to upload onto video sharing sites.
  • Jailbreaking phones and tablets.
  • Modifying video games so that they need not “phone home” to an authorization server when the server is offline.

While it is cumbersome to constantly reapply for these exemptions, it is important to continually update our laws. They should not only keep up with new emerging technologies, but also with our own ever-evolving culture.


  1. We may have been exempt before then, but I was a scofflaw in this regard in 2006. 

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