Here is something to think about: if someone has a pacemaker in their chest, it is responsible for maintaining the electrical signals the heart needs to keep the blood pumping. However, legally, it is a black box. That means it is against the law for you to open it, tinker with it, or modify it in any way even if you are just checking the pacemaker to ensure it is working correctly. This legal standing is the result of a law enacted known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. This gives a wide variety of legal protections to anyone who holds a copyright for their intellectual property, regardless if it is a life-saving medical device. In the eyes of the law, a pacemaker holds the same legal standing as nuclear power plant systems, songs by your favourite artists and even electric drum pumps.

Technical Protection Measure

The DMCA turned technological protection measures, TPMs, into official law. These are the ways in which the holder of a copyright can restrict access to their “work.” This “work” may be any number of things – technical device blueprints, songs, movie scripts and software are just a few. The restrictions can also come in a wide variety of forms. Some use password protection, others use encryption or access controls. The DMCA means it is now illegal to attempt to bypass these TPMs. It, largely stems from a fear of piracy by the entertainment industry. Due to these laws, reverse engineering a device is now basically illegal as it is seen as attempting to circumvent a technological protection measure.


Fortunately, the DMCA will allow some exemptions. Every 3 years, parties which are affected by the law can request that they be excluded from the rules if they can prove that the TPM is restricting a legitimate cause. In 2014, 44 proposals were submitted and now the holders of the copyrights are going head to head against the petitioners making their argument as to why they should or should not be exempt. After several rounds of hearings and other reviews, the Copyright Office will release a decision on each proposal.

Most exemptions that are requested fall into one of two categories – computer security and inter-operability. From the 2014 proposals, 27 of the 44 had classes of materials that could be considered for an exemption from the DMCA. Many people view it as a show of how absurd copyrights can be.

Chances of Exemption Approval

Most of the requests are quite reasonable. However, the question is whether or not the Copyright Office will agree.

It is doubtful. Pamela Samuelson, one of the directors of the Berkeley Centre for Law and Technology believes that if the past is any indication, chances are high of the Copyright Office denying most of the exemptions requested, regardless of how harmless they appear.

She believes that Congress should have never approved such broad rules with regards to circumvention. In her opinion, only circumventions that are intended to infringe on Copyright should be viewed as illegal. This would eliminate a need for the current triennial review process, and would mean that reverse engineering a digital work would be less risky.