A top hardware hacker and a well-known academic security researcher are suing the United States federal government over section 1201 of the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which he claims “chills protected and noninfringing speech”.
The suit, filed by hardware researcher Andrew Huang, cryptographer Matthew Green, and the EFF, challenges the legality of a specific position of the DMCA, the law designed to prevent piracy of movies, music, and other copyrighted works. The measure is widely disdained in the security community, particularly section 1201, which makes it illegal for people who own media such as movies to circumvent the security protections built into those media. That section has prevented many security researchers from reverse-engineering or otherwise tinkering with the software and hardware they buy.
In the lawsuit, Huang and EFF say that section 1201 has cast a shadow over the security research community and infringes on the right to free speech.
“Enacted in 1998, these provisions broadly restrict the public’s ability to access, speak about, and use copyrighted materials, without the traditional safeguards—such as the fair use doctrine—that are necessary to protect free speech and allow copyright law to coexist with the First Amendment. The threat of enforcement of these provisions chills protected and noninfringing speech that relies on copyrighted works, including independent technical research into computer security systems and the discussion of that research, and accessing copyrighted works in order to shift the content to a different format, space, or time,” the lawsuit says.
Huang is a longtime hardware hacker and researcher who has worked on a variety of projects over the years. Well-regarded in the security community for the diversity and depth of his work, Huang said he’s suing the Library of Congress, Department of Justice, and Copyright Office because he’s tired of seeing section 1201 restrict the thoughts and speech of researchers.
“I can no longer stand by as a passive witness to this situation. I was born into a 1201-free world, and our future generations deserve that same freedom of thought and expression. I am but one instrument in a large orchestra performing the symphony for freedom, but I hope my small part can remind us that once upon a time, there was a world free of such artificial barriers, and that creativity and expression go hand in hand with the ability to share without fear,” Huang said.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday, says that section 1201 restrains researchers like Huang and Green from working on certain projects due to fear of prosecution.
“Green has declined to investigate certain devices due to the possibility of litigation based on Section 1201. He and researchers like him are hamstrung in their ability to use certain techniques that are standard in those parts of the research security field that Section 1201 does not affect. By limiting researchers to less effective methods, Section 1201 diminishes the possibility of finding useful results while significantly increasing the effort involved. This greatly undermines the security of all manner of technologies,” the suit says.
Kit Walsh, a staff attorney for the EFF, said the DMCA presents too many barriers for security research and other kinds of work on copyrighted material.
“The government cannot broadly ban protected speech and then grant a government official excessive discretion to pick what speech will be permitted, particularly when the rulemaking process is so onerous,” said Walsh. “If future generations are going to be able to understand and control their own machines, and to participate fully in making rather than simply consuming culture, Section 1201 has to go.”