Yesterday, the Library of Congress handed a significant win to digital preservationists. On October 26, 2018, the Library of Congress granted an exemption to the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision for libraries, archives, and museums to circumvent technological protection measures on certain lawfully acquired software for the purposes of preserving software and materials that depend on it. This exemption will significantly reduce the legal risk involved in preserving software that is no longer available for purchase. The new exemptions will go into effect on October 28, 2018. The announcement came after a year of rulemaking proceedings before the Copyright Office, and the involvement of several semesters of Clinic students, including Evelyn Chang, Anderson Grossman, Jillian Goodman, Erika Herrera, Austin Bohn, and Erin Thomas. You can read our previous blog posts about the Clinic’s involvement here and here.
17 U.S.C. § 1201 prohibits circumvention of a “technical measure that effectively controls access” to a copyrighted work. This provision has the effect of forbidding someone from breaking “digital rights management” or “DRM” technology – think, for example, of the copy-control technologies that restrict copying of DVDs or CDs (containing film or software). Under Section 1201, the circumvention of the access control measure is itself a violation — one can be held liable for violating Section 1201 by breaking DRM even if the underlying use of the work protected by that DRM is lawful. This can lead to strange results — e.g., someone copies a clip from a DVD for educational purposes (clearly a fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, no liability) but breaks DRM on the DVD in doing so (thus violating Section 1201 and incurring potential liability for that violation).
Recognizing this problem, the law provides that the Copyright Office shall conduct a rulemaking proceeding every three years to consider requests for exemptions from liability under Section 1201. Since the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking initiating the seventh triennial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) rulemaking proceedings last fall, the Cyberlaw Clinic has represented the Software Preservation Network (SPN) before the Copyright Office. The SPN and the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) sought an exemption to the DMCA anti-circumvention provisions to allow libraries, archivists, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions to preserve software and software-dependent materials. SPN is an organization dedicated to digital preservation and ensuring long term access to software. The LCA represents librarians in the United States and Canada in addressing copyright and related IP issues.
Why Software Preservation Matters
Software is an important part of our daily lives, and it has changed how we interact with the world. Many writers turn to word processing software instead of the typewriter, and many artists turn to graphics tablets instead of the canvas. As a result, many creative works today are “born digital,” unlike traditionally analog works like literary manuscripts or paintings. We even rely on software to create digital copies of these old analog works to protect their contents from the inevitable degradation of the physical media.
This increased dependence on software as a medium for creative expression has led to increased efforts for preservation of software and software-dependent materials by university libraries and research institutions. Preservation of these works indisputably serves two laudable purposes: to allow historians to document an important aspect of modern culture, and to enable researchers to understand how older software worked and how past users experienced that software.
But the unrelenting march of technology stymies the efforts of digital preservationists. New software products become outdated and obsolete rapidly due to continuing advancements in hardware and software. The modern practice in the software industry of periodically releasing new products and versions while dropping support for old products and versions means that archivists and preservationists may never be able to obtain copies of certain software for preservation purposes. And since computer programs often use proprietary file formats that can change across versions, losing access to software also means losing access to digital files that can only be opened using that software. For example, current versions of AutoCAD do not support opening old AutoCAD files. And even if some computer programs currently support backward compatibility, there is no guarantee that they will continue to support old filetypes going forward.
How the Law Gets in the Way of Preserving Software
Despite the importance of software preservation and the known technological challenges faced by digital preservationists, current legal frameworks frustrate, rather than facilitate, preservation efforts. Even if a copy of old software can be located, preservationists may have difficulty seeking licenses or permissions because the current holders of rights to the old software may not be identifiable. The older the software, the more difficult. And even if rightsholders can be located, they may have little incentive to incur the transaction costs associated with licensing their old software because no market exists for the software.
Legally obtaining copies of old computer programs is not the end of preservationists’ troubles. Computer programs often include built-in technological protection measures (TPMs) to prevent access by unauthorized users. TPMs may require the user to provide product keys or passwords, insert a CD or dongle, or connect to an Internet server for authentication. But preservationists may not be able to access the software using TPMs in the manner intended by the developers, especially for older software. Old TPMs may require using obsolete operating systems, or inserting floppy disks despite modern computers no longer supporting floppy disk drives. If librarians or preservationists circumvent these TPMs in their efforts to study and preserve old computer programs and files, they would be subject to legal liability under the DMCA. Even if rightsholders never actually bring lawsuits against preservationists for circumventing TPMs, as friend of the Clinic Brandon Butler’s recent report suggests, the mere threat of legal liability causes a chilling effect. The consequence is forever losing software and software-dependent materials to the ages.
Most parties, including the opponents, agreed that software preservation is a worthwhile endeavor. While the opponents objected to the broad scope of SPN’s proposed exemption, the Acting Register of Copyrights agreed that librarians, archivists, and preservationists need more latitude in their ability to access computer programs and computer program-dependent materials. And after a year of public comments and hearings, the Librarian of Congress, adopting the recommendation of the Register of Copyrights, issued a final rule containing an exemption that encompasses much of what the SPN requested.
The final rule allows eligible libraries, archives, and museums to circumvent technological protection measures on certain lawfully acquired computer programs (including video games) to preserve computer programs and computer program-dependent materials. The final rule includes the SPN’s suggestion, in consideration of the opponents’ concerns about breadth, that the exemption be limited to computer programs that are no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace. The Library of Congress did create some limitations on the exemption, requiring that the computer program is not distributed outside the physical premises of the eligible library, archives, or museum.
On the whole, the new exemption gives digital preservationists significantly more leeway to continue their important work without living under a cloud of litigation risk. The Cyberlaw Clinic will continue to work with the SPN and other software preservation groups to ensure that the law does not inhibit continued access to software for scholarship and research, and will release a more comprehensive guide to the new exemption for preservationists in the coming weeks.