Unlocking cell phones becomes illegal in the United States starting this Sunday


Here in the United States we have the ‘Digital Millennium Copyright Act’ (DMCA). The act is intended to help protect copyright owners against intellectual property theft. However, as we have seen over and over, DMCA is often misused or abused. And today we have yet another example of what is, in my opinion, the improper use of DMCA.

The librarian at the Library of Congress in the US is charged with determining exemptions to DMCA. In other words, it is the job of this librarian to decide what activities are exempt from DMCA. (I’m going to assume ‘librarian’ is simply a title and this person is fully educated in legal and other matters, not just in the art of shelving books) In October 2012, the librarian decided unlocking cell phones is not exempt from DMCA and thus should not be allowed. In all his/her wisdom, the librarian decided to give a 90 day grace period before making unlocking of cell phones in the United States illegal; the grace period ends this Sunday, January 26.

It should be noted that ‘unlocking’ in this context is ‘carrier unlocking’, not ‘jailbreaking’ or ‘rooting’. You see, when you buy a subsidized phone from a telecom in the United States, most of the time the phones are locked so they only work with that specific carrier. Carrier unlocking is when you unlock your phone so it can be used on a different carrier. For example, you can have an AT&T phone and unlock it so it runs on T-Mobile’s network; or maybe you are traveling and you want to use the AT&T phone on a different network in your country of vacation. The librarian’s ruling makes this carrier unlocking illegal.

It isn’t entirely clear if this ruling affects CDMA phones as well as GSM phones or GSM phones only (because CDMA phones operate a bit differently when it comes to carrier locks).

If you have a carrier-specific phone, not all is lost. You are legally allowed to unlock your cell phone if your carrier is willing to unlock it for you. In other words, if you call up your carrier and they are willing to provide you with the unlock code, the law allows for that. For example, both AT&T and T-Mobile sometimes provide unlock codes after a certain amount of days have passed after you buy the phone. If your carrier won’t unlock it, however, you would be breaking the law if you unlocked your phone on your own, such as by purchasing an unlock code online (there are many websites that sell unlock codes for $10-$20).

In what may be considered inconsistent rulings, jailbreaking (or rooting, or homebrewing, or etc.) a phone is actually legally allowed in the United States; the librarian has determined jailbreaking phones exempt from DMCA. However, jailbreaking/rooting/etc. tablets is illegal. And unlocking a phone is illegal. Huh?

[via TechNewsDaily]

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  • Cindi

    Funny thing is that here in Brasil the companys have to unlock the phone if the user requests so. In other words, if they refuse to unlock they are breaking the law. It is considered a violation to consumer law, because it means obligating people to use their service even if they don’t want to. Would be like obligating someone to stay in a contract against it’s will, with no reasonable option to get out.

  • Peter

    Another result of lobbying (aka “coercion” or “bribe your tribe”) and the vast amount of time, lawyers spend in an universe which is not even approximately parallel to our’s (but is has to be a flat one). Things like that happen all the time over here in Berlin and Brussels.

  • Strahd

    @K Lewis:

    totally agree with you.

    This new ruling will not stop people from unlocking phones, hell I myself will keep doing so. Its my property.

    Next thing they will do is say i cant install solar panels and do away with my electric company.

    Screw you DMCA!

  • michael clyde

    how does the librarian at the congressional library get his/her job… appointed, good ole boy network, not who you knew but who you blue or what ¿

    michael clyde

  • Donna

    @K Lewis:
    Ditto, you hit it head on the nail. Just another infringement on the people.

  • Mike

    @ewsmith: Actually, France recently essentially declared as such (blocking Internet ads as illegal), when an Internet provider had that service.

  • LWJR

    Our government is drunk with POWER. Time to unlock the citizens of the USA.

  • JT

    @K Lewis:
    I know if you have an iPhone 5 from Verizon they had to sell it unlocked because of the LTE deal when they bought the frequencies. Apple themselves sell unlocked phones that you can use on any network you want right now. Wonder if that’s going to continue or not….I imagine it would.

  • K Lewis

    I understand the ruling but I would compare this to taking a Ford car and putting in a Chevy engine. Will this become illegal also?
    I sure wish I could take my Verizon phone and use it with AT&T service, especially so I would not have to purchase another phone. What about charging an access fee – oh that won’t work either because those smarter than I can get into the phone already. I guess that is what is called “roaming charges.”

  • JT

    And the supposed purpose for outlawing jailbreaking/rooting tablets was supposed to be because they’re used for reading books etc. more than phones are. Give me a break people! I think the real reason is to see if they can get away with it without too much public outcry before moving the ban to phones as well. People normally jailbreak/root for themes, addons, and most things like that. Very few in these “freedom” communities will use, or know how to use their devices for anything that would hurt anyone’s copyrights. IMO

  • thegreenwizard

    How much did he get for this smart rule?

  • ewsmith

    Next it will be illegal to block ads.