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Appeals court slams garage door DMCA claim

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A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that the maker of a universal garage door remote did not violate the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA, putting the brakes on one of the more adventuresome interpretations of the controversial copyright law.

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that dismissed part of a civil suite brought by the Chamberlain Group, a leading maker of automatic garage door openers, against Skylink Technologies, Inc., a competitor that markets a universal replacement for lost garage door remotes.

Chamberlain had argued that Skylink's Model 39 universal garage door opener was an illegal circumvention device under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it provided consumers with unauthorized access to the copyrighted firmware in Chamberlain's Liftmaster line of garage door openers. But unlike other DMCA cases that have at least alleged the potential for copyright infringement, Chamberlain did not argue that the Model 39 gave consumers any new ability to read or copy the company's code. Instead, the company posited that by merely activating the Liftmaster code - i.e., opening their garages - consumers were gaining a form of unauthorized access to the firmware. The Skylink remote used a clever hack to bypass the "rolling code" technology in the Liftmaster system.

Last November a federal judge in Illinois rejected the claim on the grounds that Chamberlain didn't explicitly prohibit consumers from using third-party remotes, hence the supposed access was not "unauthorized." Chamberlain appealed. Tuesday's appeals court decision agreed with the lower court ruling, but also went further, finding that a device has to facilitate copyright infringement to fall under the ambit of the DMCA.

"Chamberlain's proposed construction would allow copyright owners to prohibit exclusively fair uses even in the absence of any feared foul use," wrote judge Arthur Gajarsa for the panel. "Copyright law itself authorizes the public to make certain uses of copyrighted materials. Consumers who purchase a product containing a copy of embedded software have the inherent legal right to use that copy of the software. What the law authorizes, Chamberlain cannot revoke."

"There wasn't an alleged copyright infringement in the first place," says attorney Jennifer Urban, who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the Consumers Union while with U.C. Berkeley's Samuelson Law Clinic. "From my perspective the most important thing [in the decision] is that consumers have rights under the copyright law, and the DMCA does not completely destroy those rights."

A spokesperson for Chamberlain did not return a phone call Wednesday.

Tuesday's decision is only the second time a federal appeals court has interpreted the DMCA's anti-circumvention prohibitions. In 2002, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that barred hacker magazine 2600 from posting or linking to a DVD descrambling program.

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