New DMCA Exemptions: Ripping DVDs for Online Video Now Legal

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The U.S. Copyright Office published six new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) anti-circumvention clause today which should make it far easier for online filmmakers to legally use commercial DVDs. Up until now, filmmakers were actually breaking the law when ripping DVDs to get footage because the act of ripping entails circumventing copy-protection measures.

However, under the new rules, it’s legal to circumvent such measures if you’re a documentary filmmaker or if you intend to use the material for “noncommercial videos.” The EFF, which was actively pushing for these exemptions, is celebrating them as a huge success on its blog, with the organization’s senior staff attorney Corynne McSherry quoted as saying:

“Noncommercial videos are a powerful art form online, and many use short clips from popular movies. Finally the creative people that make those videos won’t have to worry that they are breaking the law in the process, even though their works are clearly fair uses. That benefits everyone — from the artists themselves to those of us who enjoy watching the amazing works they create.”

Critics have long pointed out that the DMCA can be abused to essentially take away rights otherwise granted. In this case, documentary filmmakers and YouTubers alike have always been protected by Fair Use, as long as their videos fulfill certain criteria. However, exercising those rights was in many cases not possible without ripping DVDs, which forced them to break the law.

The new exemptions come only days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a ruling questioning whether the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions can be used at all to restrict use cases that would otherwise be perfectly legal. In its ruling, the court wrote:

“Merely bypassing a technological protection that restricts a user from viewing or using a work is insufficient to trigger the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provision. The DMCA prohibits only forms of access that would violate or impinge on the protections that the Copyright Act otherwise affords copyright owners.”

In other words: Ripping a DVD to make a backup copy is perfectly legal, ripping it to sell copies is not — at least based on this decision. Maybe the DMCA is finally catching up with reality, after all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ToastyKen.

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