Remember July of last year, when the U.S. Copyright Office said it was totally cool for you to jailbreak your iPhone and there wasn’t squat Apple could do about it? It’s time for the rest of the tech industry to shake in their collective boots, because the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the group that was at the forefront of getting the government to expand the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is at it again, filing exemptions with the Copyright Office to let you modify pretty much every piece of hardware or electronic media you own.
Essentially, if these exemptions are accepted, that means if you wanted to modify your Blu-ray player so it would be region-free, you’d be good to go. If you wanted to modify your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 so it could natively play .MKV files, there would be no legal path for Microsoft or Sony to stop you. Itching to edit some video files to make it look like Buffy killed Edward? If YouTube took it down, it’s just because they’re randomly being jerks, not because you are violating anything legally.
In theory, this DMCA expansion would be an incredible boon for consumers. It would negate arcane laws that only seem to govern products you purchase that primarily exist to entertain. It’s 100 percent legal for me to modify a computer or a car in any way I see fit. But for some reason, if I modify a video game system, it leaves me open to legal action.
However, if this passes, it also potentially opens the door for more piracy and game hacking. This could theoretically raise prices as companies try to maintain their profit margins and increase griefing in games as script-kiddies get more access to trainers and aimbots on their consoles. I say potentially, because it seems unlikely that anyone is letting the DMCA stop them from WiiBrew-ing up their Wii. The technology is already out there, people are already doing it, all the DMCA is doing is trying to stop it by making a seemingly innocuous act illegal and from a position that is mostly unenforceable. If the exemptions are anything like the previous ones, it would allow companies to thwart modifiers by not releasing updates to modified devices or allowing services like online gameplay.
Even beyond the argument of “I own it, I should be able to do whatever I want with it,” the last round of DMCA exemptions creates an odd situation when it comes to modifying entertainment technology. It is illegal for me to modify the WiFi-only PlayStation Vita. However, it should be legal to modify the higher-end model, because it has 3G connectivity, which would technically make it a phone.
The tech and entertainment industries are praying this doesn’t happen. If it does, it may be the most blatantly pro-consumer move since, well, summer of 2010, the last time there were DMCA exemptions.