good deal of their historical policymaking role in copyright matters back to Congress. Both the cases construing the DMCA broadly and the cases construing it narrowly have attempted to portray their results as resting not upon policy considerations, but instead as commanded solely, or primarily, by the literal text of the statute. In doing so, the courts have at once demoted themselves from the coequal policymaking role they have traditionally occupied in copyright and imposed on the text of the DMCA a far greater burden than it can colorably bear, for like other copyright statutes, the DMCA includes a multiplicity of provisions pointing in different directions.
The effect has been a devaluing of copyright doctrine in cases under the DMCA to no identifiable benefit. The development of a cohesive body of DMCA case law is hampered by the courts’ insistence on disregarding provisions that actually appear in the statute. Doing so both diminishes the persuasive force of their decisions (for later courts may decide instead to emphasize the provisions of the DMCA that the earlier courts discounted) and inhibits consideration of plainly relevant source materials outside the enacted text. Copyright law, for its own valid purposes, long ago outgrew such strict formalism. It would be far preferable for the courts in DMCA cases to do likewise.
Perhaps they have. After all, cases like Chamberlain and Lexmark do seem to draw upon matters of legislative policy and intent to give the DMCA quite a different reading than did cases like Reimerdes. Perhaps the courts are silently thinking “fair circumvention” thoughts, while outwardly preserving a façade of formalist orthodoxy to forestall intervention by a more narrowly textualist Supreme Court. If that is their game, however, it seems hardly to be worth the candle. A court’s insistence in case #1 that the literal text of the DMCA says something it clearly does not leaves all the parties in case #2 worse off, for they must either frame their own arguments around the supposed literal text of the statute (a recipe for continued confusion) or invoke policy considerations outside the statutory text that precedent has declared to be irrelevant.
Development of a rational, cohesive body of doctrine under the DMCA would be served far more readily by a forthright judicial declaration that, although particular conduct might be encompassed within the four corners of the statute’s liability provisions, it nevertheless will not be punishable for good and adequate reasons of policy. Debate thereafter could revolve around ascertaining the reasonable limits of those policies and any countervailing principles (prominently including, to be sure, fidelity to the intent of Congress and the enacted text where it supplies an ascertainable rule of decision). This is the route the courts took when developing copyright’s fair use doctrine, and it remains a sensible alternative for developing a “fair circumvention” doctrine under the DMCA.