You Gotta Fight For the Right to Break Digital Locks: IP Clinic Teams Up with Cinema Studies Professor, Higher Education Organizations in DMCA Rulemaking

Guest post by student attorneys Sarah O’Connor and Mark Patrick

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to break digital locks on copyrighted material, even when what you intend to do with the work is otherwise legal, such as using short clips from a motion picture in a class presentation. However, there is an out. Every three years the Copyright Office holds a proceeding to consider and grant limited exemptions for uses where users can show the law is creating a substantial burden on free expression or other valuable activities.

In each triennial proceeding, new petitions must be submitted on behalf of each party seeking exemptions. Petitions must make the case for what has been exempted in the past, in addition to what should be exempted in the present and future, keeping in mind new technological and pedagogical trends. Failure to submit these petitions every three years would result in a total loss of the exemption.

The Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic has had the exciting opportunity to work on several DMCA exemption petitions through the years and is again participating in this process. The previous petitions submitted by the IP Clinic involved a collaborative effort with educators and students. Securing these exemptions has assured that professors and students can continue to break digital locks and use short portions of audiovisual works. This year we have been working with Peter Decherney, Professor of Cinema Studies and English at the University of Pennsylvania, and organizations including the College Art Association, the International Communication Association, and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies to submit a petition asking for exemptions on behalf of college and university students and professors.


The petition asks for an exemption for audiovisual works embodied in physical media (DVDs and Blu Ray) or obtained online. Audiovisual works is a relatively broad category that includes not only motion pictures but also television programs, slide shows, video games, and other works. This exemption would enable students and professors to use short portions or still images from these works to prepare a lecture or dissertation, facilitate a classroom discussion, complete an assignment, or otherwise participate in activity that enhances the educational experiences.

Once the petitions are submitted and reviewed, the Copyright Office will ask proponents of exemptions to make their case through compelling stories and other examples of the adverse effects imposed by this law. Have digital locks imposed a burden on you? Or, have you taken advantage of existing exemptions to legally copy from DVDs and other protected formats for teaching and learning? We are gathering evidence of the harmful impact that digital locks can have, and of the benefits of lawful access to media for use in teaching and learning, and we want to hear from you! If you have a story to share, please fill out our Google form! You can also get in touch with our student attorneys by email at

Our petition and others can be seen at:
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is also maintaining a list of petitions, as well as background info, blog posts and press releases which can be found here:

About Brandon Butler

Practitioner-in-Residence at the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Clinic.
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