My alma mater the Electronic Frontier Foundation got some more good news out of the 9th Circuit this week, in a case about users' freedom to tinker with their satellite TV. Section 605 of the Federal Communications Act prohibits the unauthorized interception and decryption of satellite signals, and provides various penalties for the different levels of offense. Illegally intercepting satellite signals is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and six months in prison; assembling, modifying, manufacturing, or distributing devices for unauthorized decryption exposes you to fines of up to $500,000 and five years in prison per violation.
Defendants Hoa Huynh and Cody Oliver used what's called an “unlooper” to reprogram access cards for their DirecTV receivers to enable the receivers to decrypt DirecTV's satellite signal without paying for it. DirecTV sought $20,000 in statutory damages from the defendants for each infringement, alleging that they had assembled and modified piracy devices by inserting the modified cards. The Ninth Circuit noted that the statute set different punishments for end-users as compared to higher level commercial pirates.
The court held that re-inserting the hacked card didn't constitute the kind of high-level piracy envisioned by the statute; and that the only infringement the defendants committed was intercepting the signal illegally. As Jason Schultz (who argued the case) pointed out, the ruling protects researchers and educators who want to tinker with these devices without using them to illegally get TV signals. The satellite tv company can't use federal law to stop hacking that doesn't result in illegal interception.