[RightToMod-2021] RightToMod story for EFF - Magic Lantern

Alex/ML a1ex at magiclantern.fm
Tue Dec 1 06:50:34 PST 2020

Dear EFF,

I’m writing on behalf of the Magic Lantern project (www.magiclantern.fm), an open source firmware add-on that runs on Canon DSLR cameras. It helps unlocking the potential of the powerful computer in the cameras, making it possible for camera owners to add features and extensions that they want in their devices.

Some days ago I noticed your initiative about asking the Copyright Office to allow modifying the software of any embedded device, something which would be extremely helpful in our opinion. Would EFF be interested in our story?

Magic Lantern was started in 2009 by Trammell Hudson (https://trmm.net, US-based) for the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and released under the GPL. A presentation about our project can be found at https://vimeo.com/69807998 (LinuxTag 2013). We've received legal advice from you (EFF) back in 2012, and we are very thankful for that!

Since 2009, the project has attracted a number of developers and users from all around the world, including the US: it currently works on most Canon EOS DSLR cameras released since 2005 to various extents, ranging from a "Hello World" proof of concept, to fully featured software suitable for daily use.

Our software played a role in turning consumer digital cameras into tools suitable for high quality digital filmmaking. At its debut, Magic Lantern enabled precise control over the recorded audio - Trammell's initial motivation for starting the project was his frustration with the limitations of the Canon firmware and his desire to have manual audio and lens control to his camera. We became very well known back in 2013, when we introduced raw video recording, although there are several original features, some of which made the headlines over the years: https://petapixel.com/tag/magiclantern/

Our project is a bit unusual, as we are not programming regular computers, but the embedded computers in digital cameras (in particular, Canon EOS cameras). The project involves reverse engineering the original Canon firmware on the device in order to build an interoperable runtime system that is open source and extensible by the device owner. We are a small team, currently running this project in our spare time, and we’ve received several code contributions from all over the world - primarily EU and US - during the last 10 years. The project is neither approved nor endorsed by Canon, and to date, we have not received any official statement from Canon regarding our project. They could have easily blocked us with new firmware updates, but rather they made it even simpler for us to get custom code executed on latest models. We appreciate that they seemingly tolerate our hacking of our cameras, but even then, the DMCA still manages to affect our project.

Working with reverse engineering comes with its set of legal challenges, so we have tried to be very careful with our approach. Although we have access the original firmware, i.e. ROM contents extracted from the cameras that we own, we do not distribute any Canon code in our downloads, nor do we publish the original firmware (ROM) images.

Still, one of the trickiest issues is that official firmware updates, available for download from Canon’s website, are encrypted. In order to be able to run custom code on the camera, we had to create our own homebrew firmware update files that would execute our software: we removed the original Canon code, but we still had to encrypt them in the same way as the official updates, in order for the camera to accept them. We do not publish the encryption keys, nor any tools for creating the specialized firmware files.

It’s this part of our development process that might be in conflict with the DMCA. It affected us earlier this year, when trying to apply for fiscal hosting. As expected, the hosting organization - based in the US - would have to be very careful not to put themselves at risk, so they reviewed our reverse engineering activities - and unfortunately their response wasn’t positive. We were told that the preferred way to make our project acceptable for fiscal hosting would be to apply for a DMCA exemption for allowing software modifications to digital cameras. Unfortunately, the application deadline has just passed.

Furthermore, the uncertainty around DMCA was affecting us since 2013, when we were advised that by accepting donations, we could increase our legal risk significantly. In contrast to other popular Free Software projects, where donations were able to offset expenses and to fund the development of certain features and maintenance, we stopped accepting monetary donations and have invested our own time and money to continue the project. This has had a detrimental effect on the project and the features we were able to develop for our community.

After noticing your initiative about a broad DMCA exemption, I’ve decided to write our story. I’m not expecting miracles of course - just hoping our story could be useful. At this stage, I’m not asking for any specific help, as we are still working with two potential fiscal hosts (based in the US) to clarify our situation regarding the DMCA, but I’m available for further details.

Thank you!
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