The Copyright Office has issued the latest rules on exemptions to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Great news: Legal protections for independent security research have once again been meaningfully strengthened. On the whole, these protections are now significantly greater than they were just a few years ago.

Some quick background: DMCA Section 1201 restricts security research on software without authorization of the owner of the copyright of the software, even for software on devices the researcher owns. This has long been criticized as having an adverse chilling effect on legitimate security research that would otherwise benefit consumers. However, the Librarian of Congress (acting through the Copyright Office) can establish exceptions to DMCA Section 1201, which must be renewed every three years. A three-year cycle has just concluded, with the Copyright Office issuing an updated exception for security research.

[For additional background information on why DMCA is important for security research, please see this earlier post.]

Most recent change: “All other laws” requirement removed

Prior to this most recent update, the security researcher exception provided legal protection from Section 1201 only if the researcher was compliant with every other law or regulation in the whole world, no matter how obscure. If that sounds burdensome and Kafkaesque, that’s because it is.

We made this “obey all other laws” issue the focus of our advocacy on Section 1201 throughout 2020 and 2021. As we argued extensively before the Copyright Office, the “all other laws” limitation meant security researchers could lose liability protection under Section 1201 for inadvertently violating laws with significant gray area (like CFAA), minor laws unrelated to security (like the electrical code), or sweepingly restrictive foreign laws (such as China’s rules on vulnerability disclosure).

Rapid7 proposed specific language to address this problem. And thankfully, the Department of Justice (DOJ) formally weighed in with the Copyright Office and supported our proposed language. Without the DOJ’s action to support good-faith security researchers, this effort would likely not have succeeded. Then the Dept. of Commerce joined in support of the language as well.

In October 2021, the Copyright Office handed down an updated exception for security research that adopted our proposed language and removed the “all other laws” requirement. This effectively killed the most harmful remaining aspect of the previous rule, representing major progress in legal protection for security researchers under DMCA Section 1201. That DOJ, NTIA, and Copyright Office were united in expanding protection is a sign of the growing consensus on the importance of this activity.

The change to the language essentially turns the requirement of compliance with all other laws into a helpful reminder that other laws may still apply. The language looks like this:

Striking: "and does not violate any applicable law, including without limitation the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, as amended and codified in title 18, United States Code."
Inserting: Good-faith security research that qualifies for the exemption under paragraph (b)(16)(i) of this section may nevertheless incur liability under other applicable laws, including without limitation the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, as amended and codified in title 18, United States Code, and eligibility for that exemption is not a safe harbor from, or defense to, liability under other applicable laws.

Long-haul advocacy

Many hands — too many to adequately thank here — worked tirelessly to ensure security researchers were protected from DMCA Section 1201. It has truly been a community effort.

For our part, Rapid7 has been engaged in advocacy to protect security research under DMCA Section 1201 for the better part of a decade. Testimony from Rapid7 researchers helped establish the first security research exemption in 2015. But this 2015 exemption was limited, and in 2016 we repeatedly pressed the Copyright Office to support expanded protections and reform the rulemaking process, and the Copyright Office implemented many of our recommendations. During the Copyright Office’s 2018 exemption cycle, we argued against holding security researchers liable for what third parties do with research results, to which the Copyright Office agreed. The 2018 cycle also greatly expanded the types of devices within the scope of the researcher protection. And now, in 2021, we worked with DOJ to convince the Copyright Office to remove the “any other law” restriction.

Taken together, this is a lot of progress. Rapid7 has put real time and effort into living up to its values in support of independent cybersecurity research, and it has borne fruit.

Though improved, Section 1201 remains flawed

These gains are significant and welcome. Still, it is astonishing just how much time and effort were required to wade through the sea of FUD and bureaucracy to achieve this progress. It is a testament to the danger of regulatory inertia.

And there is still more to be done on DMCA. While the security researcher protections are now greatly strengthened under DMCA Section 1201, which helps address its chilling effect on research, the law still has many flaws. As Rapid7 has noted, DMCA Section 1201 continues to be a legal risk for the use of security tools — something the researcher exemption does not address. And outside of security, DMCA continues to affect the right to repair, accessibility for the disabled, education, and much more. This is a law in acute need of a ruthless overhaul.

As far as US computer crime laws go, DMCA Section 1201 is surely among the most unsound and anachronistic. If DMCA Section 1201 were introduced in Congress today, it would be derided as toxic and never advance far enough to receive a vote. DMCA Section 1201’s most beneficial use now is as a smoldering example of how a sweeping restriction on widely used technology can become an absurd burden as technology matures. Other than that, the law is at best a waste of everyone’s time, and we should celebrate its erosion even as we lament that this erosion is gradual.

Our respect and gratitude go to all the advocates who spent their time and resources working with the Copyright Office to drive this progress.