The federal government rarely hands fair use proponents cheerful news—usually it's quite the opposite. But a judge of the 5th Circuit Appeals Court has ruled that circumventing DRM for non-infringing purposes isn't illegal, contrary to years of precedent.

Judge Emilio Garza's ruling is an extraordinary rebuke of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which since 1998 has made it illegal for you to break or otherwise mess with DRM on things you already own in order to enjoy them the way you want to. But "Merely bypassing a technological protection that restricts a user from viewing or using a work is insufficient to trigger the (Digital Millennium Copyright Act's) anti-circumvention provision," Garza countered.

According to the law as it stands, ripping a copy protected DVD with software that bypasses the disc's DRM—even if you only want to watch the digital copy on your own laptop, on your own couch, in your own apartment—is entirely illegal. This portion of the DMCA flies in the face of the entire notion of fair use—the legal concept that gives you the right to record last night's Mad Men premiere or rip a CD.

As Boing Boing points out, this case is particularly significant because the defendant is none other than General Electric, which cracked software encryption keys to perform maintenance on equipment it owned. Whether or not the case is appealed further—which could potentially send it to the Supreme Court—remains in the hands of the plaintiff, MGE UPS Systems. But as history has shown us, sometimes it takes the resources and clout of a megacoporation to affect legal change, as was the case with Sony's watershed "Betamax Case" in 1984. [Courthouse News Service via Boing Boing]