The conclusion last week of the fifth triennial rule-making of the Copyright Office has brought good news for documentary filmmakers, online distributors, remix artists and smartphone owners. It’s bad news for computer tablet owners, video gamers and space shifters. Every three years, the Copyright Office listens to complaints and reassesses need for temporary exemptions to the 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), which outlaws circumvention of digital rights management. These exemptions reflect developments, whereby certain copyrighted materials become less available to the general public.

Here’s some specifics on what Maria Pallante, the Register of Copyrights, recommended to James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and which were adopted, effective Oct. 28:

  • Critics and cineastes will benefit from a ruling on short excerpts from motion pictures on DVDs that are Content Scrambling System (CSS) protected and motion pictures lawfully acquired through online distribution services. These are exempted for criticism or comment by either screen-capture technology, or when that does not provide high enough quality content, by circumvention. This is solely for criticism or comment in 1) noncommercial videos; 2) documentary films; 3) nonfiction multimedia e-books offering film analysis; and 4) educational purposes in courses that require film and media analysis, college and university faculty and students and students in grades kindergarten through 12. This renews the 2010 exemption that allows documentary filmmakers to rip content from DVDs and streaming video for fair use incorporation in their work, but Blu-Ray was not included as proponents failed to demonstrate that space shifting is a noninfringing act. Video remix was also renewed, but expanded to allow online service clips.
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works on CSS protected DVDs or distributed by a DRM protected online service may be circumvented “to facilitate research and development of players capable of rendering captions and descriptive audio for persons who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing.” The Register supports empowering Americans with disabilities to participate in the multimedia culture.
  • DRM protected e-books (literary works distributed electronically) that were lawfully obtained by a person with a disability may be cracked to allow those people to use screen readers and other assistive technologies. This exemption previously was unavailable if the e-book were available in a non-DRM protected format.
  • Smartphones may be cracked to allow interoperability of nonvendor approved computer applications (jail-breaking) with the handset. Computer programs on smartphones, purchased new, before  or no later than 90 days after Oct. 28, may be legally unlocked to allow connection to a different wireless telecommunications network.
  • The exemption for jail-breaking smartphones to allow use of other than manufacturer-approved operation systems was continued. It was not extended to tablets because “the proposed class was broad and ill-defined,” nor to video game consoles because “access controls on gaming consoles protect not only the console firmware but the video games and applications that run on the console as well.” The Registrar did not exempt jail-breaking or running home-brew applications to circumvent access controls to video game consoles because proponents did not sufficiently establish that even if fair use could serve as a basis for the exemption, there was failure “to demonstrate that video game consoles’ access controls have or are likely to have a substantial adverse impact on such uses.”

The Register considered but concluded that Section 1201 does not prohibit circumvention of technological protection of works in the public domain, so there is no need for an exemption. In the tug of war between digital rights groups and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), regulators sided with the latter, rejecting proposals for copying DVDs for personal use.

Civil remedies and criminal penalties for violation of the DMCA can be found here.