A couple of new Digital Millennium Copyright Act cases have come up over
the last week. Neither one involves Linux or free software, but both show
the broad reach of this law, and how the DMCA could be used against Linux
in the future.
The first case is a lawsuit by Lexmark against Static Control Components.
Lexmark printers talk to installed toner cartridges via a proprietary
protocol; the printer will refuse to use cartridges which do not speak this
protocol. According to Lexmarks's
complaint (PDF format), this mechanism "protects consumers to ensure
that they are using genuine Lexmark toner cartridges." It also, of course,
protects Lexmark's revenue stream by ensuring that consumers are
"protected" from buying cheaper toner cartridges from another
A company called SMARTEK sells chips which can successfully perform the
handshake with Lexmark printers, and thus allow "unauthorized" toner
cartridges to be used. Lexmark has two distinct gripes with this product.
First, they claim, the SMARTEK chip contains a copy of code from Lexmark's
own chip; this, if true, would be a straightforward copyright violation.
But Lexmark also claims that, regardless of the provenance of the code, the
SMARTEK chip circumvents Lexmark's technical measures which control access
to the software running in the printer itself. And that, of course, is a
This claim may seem like a bit of a stretch, but Ed Felten's
remarks on the case are worth a read:
Clearly, Lexmark is being creative in their interpretation of the
DMCA. But their arguments are not ridiculous. The purpose of the
DMCA was to ban certain types of interoperation. And the DMCA
intentionally did more than just to strengthen the traditional
rights of copyright holders -- it created new categories of
rights. Lexmark will not be laughed out of court.
A similar case has been brought forward (late last year) by the Chamberlain
manufacturer of automatic garage door openers. Chamberlain's remote
openers use a sort of one-time password scheme to defend against playback
attacks, which is certainly a worthwhile goal. Of course, this scheme also
makes it difficult for competitors to make and sell remotes which will work
with Chamberlain's openers.
Unfortunately for Chamberlain, a company called Skylink figured out how to
do it. Chamberlain's complaint
(PDF format), "the Skylink transmitter circumvents the protective
measure of Chamberlain's copyrighted rolling code computer program in the
receiver wherein the homeowner can gain unauthorized access to such
computer program." The owner, in other words, is gaining unauthorized
access to his garage door opener, which he thought he had bought, to
(without authorization) open his own door, which he thought was part of his
This case, too, will probably not be laughed out of court.
One of the nice features of Linux, of course, is interoperability.
Developers of the Linux kernel and applications have, over the years, put a
great deal of effort into making Linux work with just about any other
system - hardware or software - that they could. Interoperability is one
of the big selling points of the Linux system.
It is increasingly clear, however, that the DMCA allows vendors to make
interoperability a crime simply by saying so. There can be no doubt that
this "feature" of the DMCA will see increasing use in the future, and that
Linux users will feel its bite.
to post comments)