Andrew Wylie's efforts to jailbreak authors from skimpy ebook reader royalties was not news enough for the moment, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a rulemaking statement from the Library of Congress on how to apply the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to certain aspects of ebook and software publishing. One key result of this statement is that it is no longer illegal to "jailbreak" smart mobile phones such as Apple's iPhone and Motorola's Droid X to install legally acquired software that is more to the liking of their purchasers than the software installed by the device manufacturer.
The caveat in the statement is that the new software must enable interoperability with other software on the handset or to enable connection of the device to an alternative phone network on which the owner has a contract for service. So, for example, if you have an iPhone with a Web browser that doesn't run Adobe Flash software, or a Motorola Droid that doesn't support complete Android functionality or allow connection to alternaive networks, then hack away, techophiles. The net effect of this ruling is that software cannot be used to prevent other software from using a phone or a phone from using another contracted network. It appears, then, that so-called "jailbreaking" of phones and is also now legal.
As if that weren't interesting enough, consider the second key ruling that covers ebooks. The Library of Congress statement releases most books that can be listened to using text-to-voice technologies on ebook readers from copyright claims to this audio generation feature. Since publishers make good money selling audio books, this is not likely to be a popular ruling in their circles. The ruling is an end run of sorts, since its rationale is based on the need to prevent discrimination against visually impaired people who may otherwise not have access to ebook materials. Would the U.S. Supreme Court rule against blind people in favor of book publishers to overturn this rule? Not likely.
There is a potential loophole in the finding; the exemption applies only when all of the devices on which ebooks are licensed prevent text-to-voice delivery. Publishers could, in theory, license ebooks on a rarely-used ebook reader to satisfy the needs of the visually impaired for voice-to-text support, thus allowing them to lock out voice-to-text on more popular devices. Don't think that it might not happen. In the meantime, perhaps this is strong motivation for publishers to build better voice-to-text technologies that serve their marketing purposes more effectively.
These types of rulings come out every few years, so this is not necessarily indicative of further immediate rulings against the efforts of publishers to lock down software and information media against technologies that can tailor their products more to the liking of their purchasers. However, it is an indication that there is a growing sentiment in government circles that copyright is being used in some instances to restrain innovation rather than to promote it. In a global economy in which rapid innovation may be the key to outpacing slow growth, the revenues of those governments rely upon robust business revenues and personal incomes that are benefiting from such innovations.
The DMCA still serves an important function in the fight against intellectual property piracy, but it fails to address the broader issue of effective competition in a global economy. In this sense many governments that have followed the U.S. lead in extending the term of copyright to nearly century-long protections have skewed their economies into unsustainable patterns of growth. "Life-plus 70" sounds great until you realize that the real enemy is not piracy but innovators who can deliver more entertaining and useful content more rapidly than your own rest-on-your-laurels operation. These rulings from the Library of Congress are a limited-case reminder that intellectual property that inhibits competition from other legitimate intellectual property is not in the public interest.
In this sense, the DMCA may have been a death warrant for many traditional software and information publishers, lulling many publishers into thinking that piracy prevention would keep them from having to invest in more innovative business models with any due speed. The protective glove of the DMCA is being loosened gradually, giving publishers time to adjust, but it's not likely to stay on much longer as developing nations continue to play a more bare-knuckled game of innovative competition that is likely to leave many publishers behind. Think of the small disservices that the Library of Congress has provided to publishers in its recent finding as a small service of sorts to remind them of the greater issues at stake.