It Is Now Legal to Hack a Smart TV

Copyright holders worried about the installation of "Popcorn Time," but the government agrees to an exemption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Earlier this year, we covered the odd saga of Samsung's Internet-connected SmartTV, whose privacy policy raised concern that hackers might attempt to activate built-in microphones and cameras to spy on viewers.

At the time, the Software Freedom Conservancy looked to take advantage of a triennial review conducted by the U.S. Copyright Office. Every three years, this government office hears petitions to exempt certain hacking activities from being illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's anti-circumvention protections.

The Software Freedom Conservancy wanted permission to jailbreak smart televisions to achieve interoperability and install third-party software to make these televisions better. There was also hope that some white-hat hacking might make such televisions a bit safer for consumers.

Guess what? On Tuesday, the Librarian of Congress granted an exemption upon recommendation from the U.S. Copyright Office.

The bid was approved over concerns by creative groups who worried that jailbreaking would allow the installation of software such as "Popcorn Time," allowing users to view pirated movies. But the Copyright Office concluded allowing tinkering for the purpose of achieving the interoperability of lawful software applications would likely constitute a fair use.

According to the decision, "The Register also found that the prohibition on circumvention is adversely affecting legitimate noninfringing uses of smart TV firmware, and that the proposed alternatives to circumvention, such as connecting a laptop computer to the TV, are inadequate, because they would not allow installation of software on the smart TV to improve its functioning as a TV, such as facilitating more prominent subtitles. The Register also concluded that no evidence was submitted to illustrate opponents’ claim that jailbreaking of smart TVs will make it easier to gain unauthorized access to copyrighted content, or that it would otherwise undermine smart TVs as a platform for the consumption of expressive works."

The exemptions — both new ones and renewals of old ones — also bring welcome developments for documentary filmmakers, educators and others.

Grade school teachers are now being allowed to circumvent access controls on DVDs to do things like create a clip montage of how Shakespeare's works have been adapted over the years. E-book authors will be able to unlock Blu-ray discs so as to incorporate audiovisual works in their film analysis. Documentary filmmakers are also given broad ability to hack access controls so as to incorporate old works into new ones for purposes of commentary.

Opponents worried some of this would harm the market for home entertainment products and said there were viable alternatives including clip licensing, screen-capture technologies and TV Everywhere platforms. The Copyright Office didn't go quite as far as proponents wanted — for example, an exemption was requested but not granted for those making narrative films in addition to those making documentary films — but for the most part, the Copyright Office aimed to serve fair use by loosening the hacking rules.

The rest of the 81-page decision has other developments beyond the realm of entertainment including the allowance of tinkering on smart phones and automobiles. Read in full here.