Chamberlain, a company that makes home security products including garage door openers, had sued Skylink, a competitor that sold a universal opener that worked with Chamberlain's products. Chamberlain argued that the Skylink product's ability to tap into its doors' digital security mechanisms violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
The case was widely viewed as anand was held up by critics of the DMCA as a reason the law should be scaled back. On Thursday, a federal judge said the law didn't apply, because Chamberlain had not publicly stated in any way that other companies' products couldn't be used with the door.
"A homeowner has a legitimate expectation that he or she will be able to access the garage even if the original transmitter is misplaced or malfunctions," Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer wrote in her opinion.
The decision, while giving some heart to DMCA critics, appeared to shed little light on how broadly a law originally designed to protect digital products can be applied.
Lawyers had looked to this case, along with one in whichthat created replacement toner cartridges for Lexmark's machines, as a way to clarify whether the DMCA could let companies block interoperable products. Some analysts had warned that if supported, Chamberlain's and Lexmark's arguments could let every product maker block third-party replacement components. Ford Motor could require drivers to buy Ford tires and Ford windshield wipers, for example.
The judge's reliance in her decision on Chamberlain's lack of notice to consumers left that core issue untouched, however. Lawyers said that the ruling would allow Chamberlain to create a new variety of garage door opener, include a label that says it can't be used with other products--just as a DVD says it can't be copied--and then try to block a company such as Skylink again.
"If someone was to make it clear on their site and packaging (that interoperability was not allowed), putting a consumer on notice, then this decision wouldn't apply per se," said Gwen Hinze, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consistent critic of the DMCA. "Then it would shift to the wider argument."
A representative for Chamberlain could not immediately be reached for comment.