DRM on paper shows why anti-circumvention laws are copyright’s biggest blunder

Most people are familiar with the Dymo label printer in some form or another. Not an exciting product perhaps, but quite a useful one. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has some bad news – Dymo is adding DRM to its label paper in the form of RFID chips:

Dymo’s latest generation of desktop label printers use RFID chips to authenticate the labels that Dymo’s customers put in their printers. This lets Dymo’s products distinguish between Dymo’s official labels and third-party consumables. That way, the printers can force their owners to conduct themselves in the ways that serve the interests of Dymo’s corporate owners – even when that is to the owners’ own detriment.

Unacceptable behaviour, certainly, but what has it got to do with copyright? This:

so far, no vendor has stepped in to offer a jailbreaking tool to let you modify your label maker to serve your interests, not Dymo’s shareholders.

There’s a good reason for that: U.S. Copyright law gives Dymo a powerful tool to intimidate commercial rivals who help us escape from label-jail. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exposes those rivals to $500,000 in fines and a five-year prison sentence for trafficking in tools that bypass an “access control” for a copyrighted work, like the firmware on a Dymo printer.

As the article notes, it’s not clear that a judge would rule in Dymo’s favour if somebody created a tool to allow people to circumvent Dymo’s DRM and thus use compatible label paper. But with the threat of $500,000 in fines and five years in prison as a possible outcome, nobody is going to take the risk.

If the situation were limited to DRM on label paper, it might not matter much. But the low cost of RFID chips, and the general move to add software to practically every electrical device means that it will be increasingly easy to force users to buy consumables from the manufacturer by using the same DRM trick as Dymo. As the Internet of Things takes off, this means that we will not be in control of the devices that surround us and form indispensable tools in our lives. We may be forced to pay elevated, monopolistic prices for any consumables they require. Third-party vendors will not risk contravening anti-circumvention laws like the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US, or the 2001 Information Society Directive in the EU, to come up with compatible alternatives.

Those extreme measures were passed at the behest of the copyright industry in their doomed attempt to stop people making copies of digital material – akin to trying to make water unwet. It was a terrible move, made possible by the lack of general awareness in the 1990s of how copyright would touch practically every aspect of our digital lives. That means bad laws in this apparently specialised area can – and do – have extremely serious general consequences far beyond that field. It’s high time these laws are repealed before they inflict even more damage on not just the economy, through the distortions they create, but on society as a whole, through the loss of control and basic rights.

Featured image by Kotivalo.

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