In: Articles by Edie Sellers26 Jul 2010
Today, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that owners of video games and other disk- and software-based media have the legal right to circumvent security features on their material — as long as they don’t pirate.
It beggers logic that we’d need a U.S. court tell us that when we buy something its ours, but in recent years the line between what you own and what you don’t own has become blurred indeed. Do you really own that copy of Spore? Well, you bought it at the store, and brought it home. And you loaded it onto your computer. But now you have a new computer, or you have a laptop you also want to use it on. You can’t install it on your new system because Electronic Arts wanted to stop pirates, so it included “digital rights management” software (or DRM) onto the disk that prevents you from installing the game more than a couple times.
So what was yours — even though you were using it legally and had purchased it legally — wasn’t yours because the DRM software, Securom, wouldn’t let you use it unless you used it the way Electronic Arts wanted you to.
This is not to pick on Electronic Arts, specifically, though it was probably the most visible and enthusiastic proponent of DRM. BioShock and Mass Effect also contained some mighty awful DRM of some type or another, but so do other games from other publishers like Activision, not to mention the pervasive use of DRM by distributors of movie DVDs and music CDs — some of which actually degrades the sound or picture the more times you use it, effectively destroying your legal copies while you use it.
DRM was supposed to combat game piracy, but it didn’t. Hacked copies of Spore were out on Bit Torrent sites before the legal disks could hit shelves. However, it was uniquely successful in preventing law-abiding consumers of their rights to “fair use,” like making a personal back-up copy of something you purchased or moving a copy of something from one disk drive to another.
In the case before the court, MGE UPS Systems, Inc., v. GE Consumer and Industrial, Inc. et al, a company had used cracked copies of a uninterruptible-power supply manufacturer’s software to bypass a security dongle. The company had legally purchased the software, but it had obtained cracked copies off the internet.
In the ruling, New Orleans circuit court judge Emilio Garza said that, as long as someone is using a piece of software within the limits of “fair use,” a manufactuer isn’t allowed to stop you from using it legally. “The owner’s technological measure must protect the copyrighted material against an infringement of a right that the Copyright Act protects, not from mere use or viewing,” he wrote.
Garza’s ruling doesn’t mean that the doors are open to hackers. It specifically noted that those who actually do the hacking, cracking, or bypassing of security measures violate copyright law. However, it does mean that — at least for now — you have every right to find a hacked copy of a game that you already own legally (and that’s a big caveat) so you can have a backup or move that copy from one computer to another.
It’s doubtful that this ruling has anyone at Electronic Arts or Activision shaking in their boots. This is one opinion on one case in a very limited situation. However, it would be nice if it did, and maybe it should. For far too long have publishers been able to muscle their way into your living room and tell you how and when you can use your property when you’re doing something perfectly legal. It’s nice that, at least in this case, the little guy has scored a victory against Big Brother. It’s a small skirmish in a larger war, but when you’re the little guy, you take your wins when you can get them.
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