It seems a no-brainer that copying a DVD movie and reselling it should be illegal. But how about copying it to your iPod? Or, if you're a professor, copying snippets of Citizen Kane to illustrate a point in your film class?
Well, the answer is "No, you can't" on the iPod. But academics can freely capture Kane's "Rosebud" moment and other highlights, courtesy of a decision by the U.S. Copyright Office that went into effect last week.
The rulings highlight the same murky legal frontier where copyright law meets burgeoning digital technology. It is a place shadowed by the question, "Where do the rights of digital-age property holders - be they movie studios or phone companies - end and the rights of consumers begin?"
The Copyright Office, an arm of the Library of Congress, addresses such questions. It helps decide what is legal by issuing exemptions to a landmark 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The exemptions, issued every three years, are based on complaints about the law's shortcomings.
The digital copyright act is this country's way of complying with global intellectual-property treaties drafted in 1996. The treaties and the 1998 law were born when digital technology had begun upending the way music, video and other media were being delivered to consumers.
Owners of copyrighted media wanted to ensure their property was protected in the new digital world. TV studios, for instance, would be hard-pressed to sell video clips on the Internet if someone could copy them for resale without penalty.
So, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it a crime to circumvent the technological safeguards that movie and other media companies establish to protect their property.
That protection, known as digital rights management, uses technology to lock up copyrighted material. For instance, the encryption of a digital video disc to prevent copies from being made.
The problem, Internet civil liberties advocates say, is the breadth of the digital copyright act and how intellectual-property owners are interpreting it.
The law has been used at times to deter innovation and competition - not piracy, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet civil-liberties group. A lawsuit over a garage door opener serves as an example, it says.
In 2002, Chamberlain Group, a major maker of garage door openers in Elmhurst, Ill., sued Skylink Technologies, claiming it violated the copyright act.
Skylink makes remote-control devices that open garage doors, including doors made by Chamberlain. Chamberlain claimed the Canadian company's remote cracked the computerized technology lock on Chamberlain doors.
The courts disagreed, ruling that Skylink's remote didn't lead to unauthorized use of Chamberlain's software.
"I'm pretty sure Congress wasn't intending that people can only open their garage door with the approved doohickey," said Jennifer S. Granick, director of Stanford University Law School's Center for Internet and Society.
Granick believed similar behavior was afoot in the cell phone industry. So, on behalf of the Wireless Alliance, a Colorado firm that recycles cell phones, she petitioned the Copyright Office for an exemption to "unlock" cell phones.
Wireless carriers typically install software into the phones they sell, locking customers into a network. So, if your wireless contract is expiring and you want to switch carriers, you can't use your old phone on a different network.
Wireless carriers argue that the lock is necessary for, among other things, making sure its copyrighted software is not infringed upon.
The Wireless Alliance argued that the lock was simply a way to restrict competition, making it more difficult for customers to switch carriers. The Copyright Office essentially agreed.
The alliance's victory likely won't have a big effect on consumers. After a couple of years on one wireless network, many consumers would be happy to junk their old phone for a free or cheap phone on a new network.
Still, easing the ability to jump networks might appeal to consumers who have put a few hundred bucks into a smart phone and do not want to pay for a new one.
Another significant new exemption to the digital copyright act involves compact discs. Computer security experts now clearly have the right to investigate and correct security flaws in CDs.
The ruling stems from a CD security flap concerning Sony BMG, said Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Last year, Sony BMG produced CDs that included particularly intrusive technology aimed at limiting copies. It left computers susceptible to viruses and other attacks.
Sony BMG got a big PR black eye from the incident and ended up settling class-action lawsuits from consumers.