On Jun. 22, the US Copyright Office released its long-awaited study on Sec. 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and it has important implications for independent cybersecurity researchers. Mostly the news is very positive. Rapid7 advocated extensively for researcher protections to be built into this report, submitting two sets of detailed comments—see here and here—to the Copyright Office with Bugcrowd, HackerOne, and Luta Security, as well as participating in official roundtable discussions. Here we break down why this matters for researchers, what the Copyright Office's study concluded, and how it matches up to Rapid7's recommendations.

What is DMCA Sec. 1201 and why does it matter to researchers?

Sec. 1201 of the DMCA prohibits circumventing technological protection measures (TPMs, like encryption, authentication requirements, region coding, user agents) to access copyrighted works, including software, without permission of the owner. That creates criminal penalties and civil liability for independent security research that does not obtain authorization for each TPM circumvention from the copyright holders of software. This hampers researchers' independence and flexibility. While the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is more famous and feared by researchers, liability for DMCA Sec. 1201 is arguably broader because it applies to accessing software on devices you may own yourself while CFAA generally applies to accessing computers owned by other people.

To temper this broad legal restraint on unlocking copyrighted works, Congress built in two types of exemptions to Sec. 1201: permanent exemptions for specific activities, and temporary exemptions that the Copyright Office can grant every three years in its "triennial rulemaking" process. The permanent exception to the prohibition on circumventing TPMs for security testing is quite limited – in part because researchers are still required to get prior permission from the software owner. The temporary exemptions go beyond the permanent exemptions.

In Oct. 2015 the Copyright Office granted a very helpful exemption to Sec. 1201 for good faith security testing that circumvents TPMs without permission. However, this temporary exemption will expire at the end of the three-year exemption window. In the past, once a temporary exemption expires, advocates must start from scratch in re-applying for another temporary exemption. The temporary exemption is set to expire Oct. 2018, and the renewal process will ramp up in the fall of this year.

Copyright Office study and Rapid7's recommendations

The Copyright Office announced a public study of Sec. 1201 in Dec. 2015. The Copyright Office undertook this public study to weigh legislative and procedural reforms to Sec. 1201, including the permanent exemptions and the three-year rulemaking process. The Copyright Office solicited two sets of public comments and held a roundtable discussion to obtain feedback and recommendations for the study. At each stage, Rapid7 provided recommendations on reforms to empower good faith security researchers while preserving copyright protection against infringement – though, it should be noted, there were several commenters opposed to reforms for researchers on IP protection grounds.

Broadly speaking, the conclusions reached in the Copyright Office's study are quite positive for researchers and largely tracked the recommendations of Rapid7 and other proponents of security research. Here are four key highlights:

  1. Authorization requirement: As noted above, the permanent exemption for security testing under Sec. 1201(j) is limited because it still requires researchers to obtain authorization to circumvent TPMs. Rapid7's recommendation is to remove this requirement entirely because good faith security research does not infringe copyright, yet an authorization requirement compromises independence and speed of research. The Copyright Office's study recommended [at pg. 76] that Congress make this requirement more flexible or remove it entirely. This is arguably the study's most important recommendation for researchers.

  2. Multi-factor test: The permanent exemption for security testing under Sec. 1201(j) also partially conditions liability protection on researchers when the results are used "solely" to promote the security of the computer owner, and when the results are not used in a manner that violates copyright or any other law. Rapid7's recommendations are to remove "solely" (since research can be performed for the security of users or the public at large, not just the computer owner), and not to penalize researchers if their research results are used by unaffiliated third parties to infringe copyright or violate laws. The Copyright Office's study recommended [at pg. 79] that Congress remove the "solely" language, and either clarify or remove the provision penalizing researchers when research results are used by third parties to violate laws or infringe copyright.

  3. Compliance with all other laws: The permanent exemption for security testing only applies if the research does not violate any other law. Rapid7's recommendation is to remove this caveat, since research may implicate obscure or wholly unrelated federal/state/local regulations, those other laws have their own enforcement mechanisms to pursue violators, and removing liability protection under Sec. 1201 would only have the effect of compounding the penalties. Unfortunately, the Copyright Office took a different approach, tersely noting [at pg. 80] that it is unclear whether the requirement to comply with all other laws impedes legitimate security research. The Copyright Office stated they welcome further discussion during the next triennial rulemaking, and Rapid7 may revisit this issue then.

  4. Streamlined renewal for temporary exemptions: As noted above, temporary exemptions expire after three years. In the past, proponents must start from scratch to renew the temporary exemption – a process that involves structured petitions, multiple rounds of comments to the Copyright Office, and countering the arguments of opponents to the exemption. For researchers that want to renew the temporary security testing exemption, but that lack resources and regulatory expertise, this is a burdensome process. Rapid7's recommendation is for the Copyright Office to presume renewal of previously granted temporary exemptions unless there is a material change in circumstances that no longer justifies granting the exemption. In its study, the Copyright Office committed [at pg. 143] to streamlining the paperwork required to renew already granted temporary exemptions. Specifically, the Copyright Office will ask parties requesting renewal to submit a short declaration of the continuing need for an exemption, and whether there has been any material change in circumstances voiding the need for the exemption, and then the Copyright Office will consider renewal based on the evidentiary record and comments from the rulemaking in which the temporary exemption was originally granted. Opponents of renewing exemptions, however, must start from scratch in submitting evidence that a temporary exemption harms the exercise of copyright.

Conclusion—what's next?

In the world of policy, change typically occurs over time in small (often hard-won) increments before becoming enshrined in law. The Copyright Office's study is one such increment. For the most part, the study is making recommendations to Congress, and it will ultimately be up to Congress (which has its own politics, processes, and advocacy opportunities) to adopt or decline these recommendations. The Copyright Office's study comes at a time that House Judiciary Committee is broadly reviewing copyright law with an eye towards possible updates. However, copyright is a complex and far-reaching field, and it is unclear when Congress will actually take action. Nonetheless, the Copyright Office's opinion on these issues will carry significant weight in Congress' deliberations, so it would have been a heavy blow if the Copyright Office's study had instead called for tighter restrictions on security research.

Importantly, the Copyright Office's new, streamlined process for renewing already granted temporary exemptions will take effect without Congress' intervention. The streamlined process will be in place for the next "triennial rulemaking," which begins in late 2017 and concludes in 2018, and which will consider whether to renew the temporary exemption for security research. This is a positive, concrete development that will reduce the administrative burden of applying for renewal and increase the likelihood of continued protections for researchers.

The Copyright Office's study noted that "Independent security test[ing] appears to be an important component of current cybersecurity practices". This recognition and subsequent policy shifts on the part of the Copyright Office are very encouraging. Rapid7 believes that removing legal barriers to good faith independent research will ultimately strengthen cybersecurity and innovation, and we hope to soon see legislative reforms that better balance copyright protection with legitimate security testing.