Court Ruling Sets Some Limits to Digital Copyright Law
Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy faculty members and students played a key role in a recent federal appeals court decision that, for the first time, set some limits to digital copyright law. On August 31, a three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld a lower court decision in Chamberlain Group v. Skylink Technologies that allows the marketing of "universal" remote controls for garage door openers, a key ruling that has broader implications in the arena of digital copyright.
In rejecting Chamberlain's claims, the court recognized provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that limit its application to instances where technical locks are used to protect copyrighted works, such as movies and music, against unauthorized access and copying, and strongly reaffirmed the continuing vitality of the public's rights under copyright law.
"The court's reading brings the statute back in line with Congress's goal-the protection of copyrighted digital content, such as movies and music, from infringement and the preservation of the public's rights to make fair and legal use of such content," said cyber copyright law expert Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic.
Faculty members and students authored and submitted amicus briefs on behalf of Consumers Union to the court of appeals, the lower federal court and the International Trade Commission in this case to defend consumer rights and the competitive marketplace. Clinic interns working on the briefs included Amalie Weber '04 and Milena Spencer '04; and Will DeVries '04, who presented Consumers Union's position at oral argument in the lower court. Jennifer M. Urban '00, of the Samuelson Clinic, and Jason Shultz '00, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, authored the brief in the Federal Circuit. Boalt Hall alumnus Ethan Andelman '00 participated with the clinic on the brief.
In this case of first impression, the Federal Circuit rejected an effort by Chamberlain, a consumer manufacturer of garage door openers, to employ a controversial section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the anti-circumvention provisions, (1201) to distort the market by employing computer code to lock-in consumers and lock-out aftermarket competition.
The DMCA was passed in 1998 to stop mass copyright infringement on the Internet, but some companies have gone beyond this purpose and invoked its controversial "anti-circumvention" provisions to stifle competition.
"The court's decision was emphatic in its determination that the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions do not create a new property right nor fundamentally alter the legal landscape governing the reasonable expectations of consumers," said Amalie Weber '04.
The case is the first comprehensive analysis of the scope of section 1201 of the DMCA. It begins to set limits on the Second Circuit's interpretation of 1201 in Universal City Studios v. Corley , 273 F.3d 429 (2d Cir. 2001), clarifying that the reasoning in Corley is limited to situations where copyright infringement is a concern. In limiting the scope of 1201 the Court highlighted the profound risk to competitive markets, and the consumer benefits that flow from them, if plaintiffs could abuse the DMCA to foreclose competition.
"This is a clear win for consumers and hopefully will serve as a bulwark against further abuse of the DMCA," added Weber.
For copies of the brief and opinion, please visit the clinic's website.