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Software Group Seeks Freedom To Install

The Software Freedom Law Group wants the U.S. Copyright Office to ensure that device makers can't limit users' ability to install lawful software on devices.

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The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a group that supports open source software, has asked the U.S. Copyright Office to ensure that users of personal computing devices have the right to install any lawful software they choose on their devices.

You might not have that right presently, depending on the computing devices you use. And if you do, that right might not last long. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act's (DCMA) anti-circumvention provisions prohibit bypassing digital locks. And more and more, device manufacturers see a reason to deploy digital locks on their devices in the name of security, ease of use, support costs, or copyright protection.

Until two years ago, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) won a DMCA exemption, it was technically illegal to "jailbreak" a smartphone like Apple's iPhone. The result of the 2009 exemption, the EFF argues, has been market innovation, as Apple has adopted features introduced first on jailbroken iPhones.

Apple, in its opposition to the 2009 exemption, argued there was no evidence that jailbreaking enhanced innovation and insisted that jailbreaking would harm its business. Nonetheless, Apple has done fairly well since jailbreaking was allowed: The company has reported a series of highly profitable quarters.

[For more background on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, read Rolling Back The DMCA.]

Now the SFLC sees the restrictions common on mobile phones migrating to other computing devices. In its legal filing, the SFLC notes that the restrictions addressed in the 2009 DMCA exemption are being replicated outside of the mobile phone market. The group points to Apple's iPad, Amazon's Kindle, and Barnes & Noble's Nook as examples of devices with digital locks.

It further notes that the app store distribution model alters the historic approach to software distribution. "While the app store model offers users some new conveniences, it also places unprecedented control in the hands of the store's owner," the SFLC filing states. "Apple uses this control to exclude competition, squelch criticism, and censor content."

Microsoft appears to be following in Apple's footsteps. Its forthcoming Windows 8 Metro apps will be sold only though Microsoft's Windows 8 Store. And Apple plans restrictions for Mac OS X apps in March 2012, when it will begin requiring apps sold through its Mac App Store to operate within a "sandbox" that limits access to the Mac file system.

What's more, computers with a new version of Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI)--which includes a "secure boot" feature that can prevent an unauthorized operating system from being installed on the device--are likely to become commonplace next year.

The SFLC sees this as a threat to open source software. "In theory, these controls will merely make it difficult, but not impossible, for a user to install their choice of operating system," the complaint states. "In practice, however, there is a very real danger that the controls will impose an OS lock on many personal computers."

Thus, the SFLC, along with the EFF, seeks to extend the 2009 exemption to cover not just mobile phones but computers, tablets, and game consoles.

"The success of the GNU/Linux operating system demonstrates that community-developed operating systems depend on open access to computing platforms to attain broad user bases and compete with commercial, proprietary operating systems," the SFLC argues. "OS locks threaten to block that access, just as community-developed mobile operating systems are poised to have significant impact."

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