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?