Until last month, people who purchased smartphones were able to unlock their devices without worrying about whether they might have been violating the law by tinkering with the digital rights management software that came with the phones.
But now, thanks to the Librarian of Congress, people who unlock phones without carrier approval potentially face legal action. That's because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides that circumventing DRM is illegal, unless done for an approved purpose. From 2006 through last year, the Copyright Office gave the okay to unlocking smartphones. But in its most recent ruling, issued in October, the Copyright Office reversed course. The result is that unlocking smartphones became illegal in late January.
The Copyright Office's move isn't sitting well with everyone. An online petition asking the Obama administration to urge the Librarian of Congress to rescind the decision, or to back a bill that makes unlocking legal, has now garnered more than 100,000 signatures, which means that the White House must respond.
The petition states that the prohibition on unlocking will result in "exorbitant roaming fees" for calls placed while traveling abroad. It also "reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full," the petition states.
It also notes that the "great majority" of phones that are sold are still locked -- despite the Copyright Office's contention that "the marketplace has evolved such that there is now a wide array of unlocked phone options available to consumers."
Even if the Copyright Office doesn't roll back the unlocking ban, courts might enforce it, according to the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's because the DMCA is aimed at preventing piracy, not at helping wireless carriers maintain their ties to consumers. In other words, cracking the DRM on a phone won't result in new episodes of "Game of Thrones" surfacing online.
The EFF points out that some courts have already ruled that the DMCA doesn't "protect digital locks that keep digital devices from talking to each other when creative work isn't involved." The group adds: "If the matter reached a court, it might well decide that the DMCA does not forbid unlocking a phone."