(CN) - Apple and others use copyright law to stifle free speech and scientific research, posing "a serious threat to several important public policy priorities," a digital rights group says.
In a new white paper, "Unintended Consequences: Fifteen Years under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act)," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said copyright "anti-circumvention" provisions "have not been used as Congress envisioned."
Specifically, it claims that the Copyright Act's prohibition on circumventing digital-rights management and "other technical protection measures" has been used to "intimidate scientists and inventors and stifle fair uses, harming both business and consumer interests."
The provisions - section 1201 of the Copyright Act - interfere with computer-intrusion and anti-hacking laws, and even consumers' ability to unlock cell phones, according to the paper.
The Library of Congress ruled in 2012 against an exemption that gave consumers the ability to unlock cellphones without carrier permission.
Rather than focusing on pirates, some companies have also used the 1998 Copyright to hinder legitimate competitors, the foundation says.
"For example, the DMCA has been used to block aftermarket competition in laser printer toner cartridges, garage door openers, video game console accessories, and computer maintenance services," according to the paper released Tuesday. "Similarly, Apple has used the DMCA to tie its iPhone and iPod devices to Apple's own software and services."
The paper cites several case studies illustrating how the law impacts video game engineers and e-book formatting, as well as its "chilling" effect on researchers.
"By banning all acts of circumvention, and all technologies and tools that can be used for circumvention, the DMCA grants to copyright owners the power to unilaterally eliminate the public's fair use rights," the paper states. "Already, the movie industry's use of encryption on DVDs has curtailed consumers' ability to make legitimate, personal-use copies of movies they have purchased."
Congress enacted the provisions in response to the piracy concerns of copyright owners and to obligations that the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty imposed on the United States, the EFF says.
"It is great to see the new awareness of the issues with cell phone unlocking, but phones are just the tip of the iceberg of problems the DMCA has created," EFF intellectual property director Corynne McSherry said in a statement. "It kills aftermarkets, interferes with legitimate research, and squelches creativity in new media."
EFF is supported by a host of organizations in its efforts, including Reddit and Mozilla.
The white paper also states that "years of experience with the 'anti-circumvention' provisions of the DMCA demonstrate that the statute reaches too far, chilling a wide variety of legitimate activities in ways Congress did not intend."
"As encrypted software finds its way into an increasing number of devices - from phones to tablets to cars - it is likely that the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions will be applied in further unforeseen contexts, hindering the legitimate activities of innovators, researchers, the press, and the public at large," the paper states.