DMCA Section 1201 Still Constitutional Says Circuit Court

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was dealt a significant (possibly fatal) blow in its longstanding endeavor to have the courts abolish the entirety of DMCA Section 1201 as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. The case Matthew D. Green, et al. v. United States Department of Justice was filed in July of 2016, and on December 6, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s denial of a preliminary injunction against enforcement of 1201 on behalf of plaintiffs Matthew Green and Andrew Huang.

Section 1201 is the provision within the Copyright Act that enables rightsholders to use computer code for the purpose of digital rights management (DRM) with two primary purposes: 1) to control access to works; and 2) to prohibit unauthorized copying of works. These purposes naturally work in tandem. For instance, Netflix requires a subscription for access and allows an account holder to download a file for offline viewing, but different code prevents copying that file for transmission to some other party. The 1201 statute prohibits unauthorized circumvention of DRM and/or trafficking in technology that enables unauthorized circumvention or copying, either of which may result in civil or criminal action.

Simply put, without DRM, the digital, on-demand market for most media would not exist, and the central purpose of 1201 to foster and sustain this market is a settled matter—both in Congress and the courts. Nevertheless, the EFF has vowed to see 1201 abolished in our lifetimes. In 2018, in a blatant appeal for donations, Cory Doctorow wrote a blog for EFF touting its “Apollo 1201 Project [which] aims to kill all the DRM in the world inside of a decade.” No mention of the fact that, at that point, the EFF’s original endeavor to “kill” DRM with the Constitution was already about twenty years old. And as of last week, it is fair to say that if DRM is to die circa 2026-28, it will not be at the clumsy hand of the EFF and its flawed arguments on behalf of inapt plaintiffs.

In the case of Mr. Green, he was seeking a preliminary injunction as a prophylactic shield in advance of publishing a book which explains (in both English and computer code) how circumvention is achieved. But the appellate court states:

Because Green intends to provide code able to circumvent technological protection measures, he believes the book would likely violate the antitrafficking provision. At oral argument, however, government counsel made quite clear that in its view, Green’s proposed course of conduct would not run afoul of the DMCA…. The government’s concession ends any “credible threat of prosecution” against Green, leaving him without standing to obtain a preliminary injunction.

As my friend Devlin Hartline mentioned during a call to discuss this case, “It was surprising to see the government concede that ground here, but even if it had not, Green’s argument for a preliminary injunction would have lost on the merits.” Writing a book about circumvention is protected speech that does not implicate 1201’s anti-trafficking provision, and the extent to which said book might be construed as a How-To manual for circumvention, that would be a fact-intensive inquiry which would still be tough to argue is a violation of the statute. This may explain why the government shrugged at it in this case.

As for Andrew Huang, he sought an injunction for intended activity that goes to the heart of 1201. Hoping to sell a DRM circumvention device called NeTVCR, along with published code so the device can be updated, Huang (the EFF) argued that computer code, even for circumvention, is protected speech. To this, the circuit court essentially said “no kidding” and notes that the government never challenged the premise that code itself is speech under the First Amendment. But as the opinion states, “We turn then to whether the DMCA ‘target[s] speech based on its communicative content’—that is, if it ‘applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.’”

Separating Expression from Function

“The Supreme Court’s recent free speech case, City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC, 142 S. Ct. 1464 (2022), is virtually dispositive,” the DC Circuit opinion states. At issue in Austin, and the relevant caselaw, is the distinction between state sign regulations that are content-neutral (and likely not in conflict with the First Amendment) versus regulations that may be content-focused (and likely to conflict with the First Amendment). The City of Austin’s rules pertain to off-premise signs, which may advertise, promote, or inform readers about something unrelated to the location of the sign; and on-premise signs, which may advertise, promote, or inform readers about something specific to the location of the sign.

Without getting into the weeds on various state sign regulations, suffice to say, the SCOTUS majority in Austin held that the city’s regulations at issue are content neutral, rejecting the petitioner’s argument (and the dissent) that because enforcement necessitated reading the signs, the regulations are fundamentally content based. The majority held, “Underlying these cases and others is a rejection of the view that any examination of speech or expression inherently triggers heightened First Amendment concern. Rather, it is regulations that discriminate based on ‘the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed’ that are content based.” Making a comparison to Austin, court in Green states:

The same logic applies here. Although the DMCA requires reading computer code to determine what digital act the code carries out, it is nonetheless content neutral because, in the words of City of Austin, it cares about the expressive message in the code “only to the extent that it informs” the code’s function.

The court further states that the DMCA question presented is easier than Austin because that case concerned the regulation of speech as speech, while Section 1201 is only concerned with the functional aspect(s) of computer code. As any copyright nerd is aware, the copyrightability of code is acutely concerned with reconciling the expressive (protectable) from the functional (non-protectable) aspects of the work. And here, as elsewhere, that which is copyrightable (expression) happens to be the part of computer code that would be protected speech. The EFF wants to call locks and keys forms of expression just because they are made of code instead of steel. But, of course, the locks are made of code — because so are the works they protect against theft.

Devlin Hartline, writing about this case for Copyright Alliance in September of 2021, discussed EFF’s alternate (reverse engineered?) route to a First Amendment challenge to 1201—namely that DRM is a prior restraint on potentially non-infringing conduct. The organization has argued many times, for instance, that if the intended use of the copyrighted work may be a fair use, then 1201 prohibits this otherwise legal conduct, which is itself protected by the First Amendment. But, as Hartline plainly observes, “The First Amendment does not allow you to pick the lock on the front door of a library in the middle of the night in order to break in and make fair use of the copyrighted books in the stacks.”

One does not need to be a constitutional scholar or a computer programmer to grasp the common sense understanding that the provisions of 1201 address solely functional aspects of code. In plain terms, 1201 is silent as to what code may be used for DRM, and it is likewise silent as to what code may be written that could pick the proverbial lock. It simply states that the act of picking the lock or trafficking in lock picks is against the law for the same reasons that bootlegging was illegal in the days before digital.

To work at the EFF, it seems that one must swear a blood oath to the core belief that copyright is inherently in conflict with the speech right. And orthodoxy mixed with righteousness (and more than a little self-interest) will invariably produce convoluted logic. Since 2001, the organization and its likeminded amici have failed to find any purchase in the courts with a constitutional challenge to DMCA Section 1201. As opined in an older post about this case, if EFF et al. really cared about specific burdens on certain parties, it would put more energy into advocating relevant permanent exemptions via the Copyright Office rulemaking process. Why it persists in this boondoggle of endless, ill-fated litigation can best be explained, I think, by the “Donate Now” button.

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