The vexing linkage between access and protection in DMCA anticircumvention analysis

A couple of days ago David Donoghue wrote about the recent case of Nordstrom Consulting, Inc. v. M&S Technologies, Inc., No. 06-3234, 2008 WL 623660 (N.D. Ill. March 4, 2008). Dave’s post gives a very thorough treatment of all aspects of the case, which involve primarily allegations of infringement of the copyright in software.

The case also involved a claim of circumvention under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, at 17 U.S.C. 1201(a). The court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion on this claim.

The dispute arose from a rather typical set of facts. The parties had collaborated on the development of some software. Along the way the principal author of the software became dissatisfied and parted ways. Litigation ensued over the parties’ ownership and use of the source code.

Before plaintiff Nordstrom officially severed ties, he went on vacation. While he was gone, one of the defendant’s employees (Butler) sent Nordstrom an email saying that Butler needed access to the source code which was stored on a computer there in the office, in order to help out a customer. Nordstrom didn’t respond for several days, and in the meantime, Butler disabled the BIOS password for the computer.

Nordstrom sued under Section 1201 over this disabling of the password. The court relied heavily on the Federal Circuit’s decision in Chamberlain Group, Inc. v. Skylink Technologies, Inc., 381 F.3d 1178 (Fed. Cir. 2004) to conclude that there was no violation of Section 1201′s anticircumvention provisions.

The Chamberlain case draws a necessary connection between circumvention and infringement. And the presence of this connection is the vexing part of the analysis. A quick reading of Section 1201 does not reveal the link.

But the Chamberlain court held that Section 1201′s prohibition on circumvention does not give rise to a new property interest, only a new cause of action, one that goes after circumvention of methods controlling access to protected works. One can’t pursue a defendant just for circumvention in a vacuum, so to speak. The circumvention has to bear some “reasonable relationship to the protections that the Copyright Act otherwise affords copyright owners.” Chamberlain, 381 F.3d at 1202. In other words, without infringement or the facilitation of infringement arising from the cirumvention, a cause of action under 1201 does not arise. The linkage is one between access and protection.

The holding of the Nordstrom case as to the DMCA claim picks up on this link between access and protection. Summary judgment on the circumvention claim was proper because the plaintiff could not show that Butler’s disabling of the BIOS password protection on the computer storing the source code enabled any infringement. The evidence before the court was that Butler accessed the code to fix a problem on behalf of an authorized licensee of the software. Because of the license, there could be no infringement. Without any connection to infringement, under the teaching of Chamberlain, a cause of action for circumvention could not be sustained.

2 thoughts on “The vexing linkage between access and protection in DMCA anticircumvention analysis

  1. Mike

    "without infringement or the facilitation of infringement arising from the cirumvention, a cause of action under 1201 does not arise. The linkage is one between access and protection."

    So, if you circumvent a copy protection, but then use the result within the scope of your rights of the uncircumvented materials, there's no violation? Seems like a fishy distinction.

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