In its new "Unintended Consequences" report released Thursday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) lists a variety of cases triggered by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law passed in 1998 designed to bring copyright law into the digital age.
Hollywood studios, record labels and other intellectual property holders lobbied hard for the law, fearing that the Internet would become a forum for rampant piracy because it allows people to easily copy and distribute digital products. Unlike analog copies, which lose resolution with each replication, digital copies of products maintain their high quality.
In its report, the EFF said aggressive applications of the law have reached beyond the intention of the measure. The EFF said the DMCA has had a threefold effect: chilling free expression and scientific research; jeopardizing fair use; and impeding competition.
"In practice, the anti-circumvention provisions have been used to stifle a wide array of legitimate activities, rather than to stop copyright piracy," the study's authors wrote.
The study examines the fallout of a particular portion of the DMCA, known as the anti-circumvention provision, which prohibits cracking protections on copyrighted works, in most cases, or even telling people how to break into the software. Aside from narrow exceptions related to research or to reverse engineering, the law doesn't consider whether a person cracking the code plans to do so for legitimate purposes.
The study lists more than a dozen cases where intellectual property holders have wielded the DMCA in ways the EFF says are overly aggressive and chilling. The study cites cases including those of, a Princeton professor who backed down from giving a speech about his research under threats from the record industry; , a Russian programmer who was jailed after speaking about software he developed that could crack Adobe Systems' eBooks; and , a company that allegedly reverse-engineered some of Lexmark International Group's printer component programs to get toner cartridges to work with Lexmark products.
The study also cites media stories about foreign programmers who fear traveling to the United States because their work might get them in trouble, as well as comments from the White House cybersecurity chief Richard Clarke saying that the law needs be reformed because it's threatening research.
The study's release comes as some Washington lawmakers have introduced a bill to scale back the anti-circumvention provisions.