First off, I must apologize for posting this so late in the day on the actual day. Life gets in the way of blogs, sometimes.
Today, October 3rd, is the first annual International Day Against DRM. (Digital Rights Management, or Digital Restrictions Management, as its opponents often call it)
DRM is the use of software protections on copyrighted material. For an overview of some of the issues, check out DRM Info, which is a great primer on the issue, including answers for questions such as "Why should I care?"
Through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Congress has made it illegal to circumvent any mechanism that "effectively controls access to a work." What does "effective" mean? Any measure that "requires the application of information, or a process or a treatment, with the authority of the copyright owner, to gain access to the work." Applying information? Going through a process? What is not covered by that? Absolutely nothing. That's why there have been suits filed under the DMCA claiming that third party garage door openers and third party toner cartridges were violating the DMCA. (Chamberlain; Lexmark) It seems that putting a password on that required your Captain America Decoder Ring would be "effective."
This statute has extended the reach of copyright well beyond the scope intended by the Constitution. Art. I, Sec. 8 states that copyright and patents are for the advancement of science and the useful arts. Slap a layer of DRM on something that contains even a kernel of copyrightable material, however, then all of a sudden, it becomes illegal for someone to access it without your permission, even if everything in it other than a doodle is public domain.
An analogy that is used often by the major media organizations (I'm looking at you, RIAA) is that breaking DRM is like breaking into an office to read a book. However, Professor Dan Burk points out that, if you've bought a copy of a DRM-protected work, it's like breaking into your own office to read the book.
DRM is useful, I won't deny it that. It lets companies put works on the internet and other public spaces that otherwise they may have kept to themselves. However, DRM covers far too much, treats the customer like a pirate until proven guilty, and does not have the leeway that is granted for Fair Use. I don't have enough space to write a book on the subject right here, but I wanted to give some links to other sites.
Here are some great articles from an academic perspective on DRM, and some rather strident views from another anti-DRM group.