New bill aims to legalize cell phone unlocking, fix the DMCA

By on May 10, 2013, 2:29 PM
legal, dmca, unlocking, cell phone unlocking

Unlike jailbreaking, which has remained legal since 2010, a DMCA exemption allowing cellphone unlocking was effectively banned in an update to the act late last year. The controversial decision pushed forward by the Librarian of Congress sparked responses from consumer advocacy groups and government agencies alike. Both the EFF and FCC chimed in against the new rule, while an online petition attracted more than 100,000 signatures and prompted a White House statement backing the people’s right to unlock their phones.

Since then, at least three bills have been drafted to address the issue, but copyright reform groups panned all of them for their narrow and temporary approach. Now, Ars Technica is reporting that new legislation sponsored by a group of bipartisan legislators finally tackles longstanding problems with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Known as the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013, the bill explicitly legalizes cell phone and tablet unlocking on a permanent basis, clarifying that this circumvention by itself does not qualify as copyright infringement.

Beyond that it also updates the DMCA to make it clear that unlocking copy-protected content is only illegal if it's done in order to "facilitate the infringement of a copyright,” and legalizes tools and services that enable circumvention as long as they are intended for non-infringing uses.

The latter in particular could have broad implications across various industries. Ars suggests it would make it legal for consumers to rip DVDs for personal use, just like they've long ripped CDs, and it would remove legal impediments to making versions of copyrighted works that are accessible to blind users. It would also make it permanently legal to jailbreak cell phones and tablets, allowing unauthorized apps to run on devices, and to mod game consoles, which is currently forbidden under the DMCA. The bill goes as far as allowing "lock-out codes" to be circumvented so that mechanics other than your auto dealer can legally service your vehicle.

“This bill reflects the way we use this technology in our everyday lives,” said representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) in a press release. "Americans should not be subject to fines and criminal liability for merely unlocking devices and media they legally purchased. If consumers are not violating copyright or some other law, there's little reason to hold back the benefits of unlocking so people can continue using their devices."

The Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 will be debated by the House Judiciary Committee later this year. FixTheDMCA.org and others are calling on Americans to write to their representatives in support of this bill.




User Comments: 11

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BlueDrake said:

This is going to be quite controversial going forward, mainly I see in terms of modding consoles. Console makers have been quite firm on this, along with using the DMCA to protect themselves from such things. Since "modding" can be seen various ways, as it's a very broad term overall and we're going to see some resistance.

I'm glad to see really a lot of things likely changed with this bill, because really it's going to change the field if this gets passed as is. Unlikely to see all these changes passing, but that's just how I view it all.

hahahanoobs hahahanoobs said:

I still don't get this unlocking thing. Are users fighting to get the phone they have on contract unlocked, or their phone that is off contract unlocked? If it is the former, why would carriers ever agree to that, and why should they? So you can bail on your contract taking their phone with you?

Signed,

Confused out the ying yang.

Staff
Jos Jos said:

@hahahanoobs I imagine there are multiple scenarios where you might want to unlock your phone before your contract is up. Perhaps the most common one, if you are traveling abroad for a few days and want to avoid expensive roaming charges.

JC713 JC713 said:

I love the image @Jos.

Gopal Bhat Gopal Bhat said:

I can't believe that unlocking your phone isn't legal in the US. That's ridiculous.

You're paying the contract, they've given you a handset, they're getting their money, so what's the problem?

Guess it's one of those many stupid laws.

Just don't get me started on Jailbreaking :P

Tygerstrike said:

I am personally glad that SOME reform is going to happen. I deal with cellphones at work and I can tell you some serious horror stories about unlocked and rooted phones. Its good to see that they are going to make unlocking available. As for the consoles, that one, if it does pass, is going to be sticky for some gamers. Those that decide to mod thier consoles may find that they will no longer be able to play on their chosen gaming system. Xbox,sony,nintendo really dont like modded consoles. Microsoft did a ban a few years ago over something similar.

Gopal Bhat Gopal Bhat said:

I am personally glad that SOME reform is going to happen. I deal with cellphones at work and I can tell you some serious horror stories about unlocked and rooted phones. Its good to see that they are going to make unlocking available. As for the consoles, that one, if it does pass, is going to be sticky for some gamers. Those that decide to mod thier consoles may find that they will no longer be able to play on their chosen gaming system. Xbox,sony,nintendo really dont like modded consoles. Microsoft did a ban a few years ago over something similar.

Not sure how unlocking can cause any problems.

I meant Jailbreaking as in Apple products.

yRaz yRaz said:

Cell phones become unlocked the minute your contract is up. This bill is pretty much saying that if you breach your contract and keep your phone, you are then aloud to unlock that phone to use it on compatible networks. So when someone buys a $799(subsidized) Phone from att and stop paying, they can unlock it and use it on tmobile.

captaincranky captaincranky, TechSpot Addict, said:

....[ ].... Are users fighting to get the phone they have on contract unlocked, or their phone that is off contract unlocked? If it is the former, why would carriers ever agree to that, and why should they? So you can bail on your contract taking their phone with you?

Signed,

Confused out the ying yang.

That's the beauty of this. If the provider are dead set against it, it must favor the consumer by default.

And as I said the last time this was discussed, it is illegal for phone utilities to force the rental of equipment on the customer.

The whole cell phone contract issue, is an end run around existing legislation. It's one of those things where, "the legislation hasn't caught up with the computer age".

Bluntly, unlocked phones would force providers to unbundle charges, and the consumer would have to be informed as to how much they were actually paying for the phone, interest charges on the phone, etc. In fact, when you come right down down to it, phone included contract plans are spitting in the face of truth in lending laws as well.

So, if the providers are forced to tell you the price of the phone up front, then they can make a more informed decision as to how much they will pay for their traffic.

If Comcast and/or Verizon have to issue credit cards to get the phone out the door in the first place, I say that's great news for the consumer, and tough s*** for them.

Abysis said:

Finally a good idea but won't last if TPP treaty get passed remvoing all fair use and overrules US constitution for copyright protection.

wiyosaya said:

Years ago, there was a US Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the VCR and made it legal to record content for personal use. Infringement of copyright would only come in if you tried to sell such a copy for profit.

IMHO, it is about fracking time that the modern era media laws caught up with that long ago Supreme Court decision. Personally, I am surprised no one, the EFF or anyone, fought the draconian DCMA before this on the basis of the previous Supreme Court decision; personally, I do not know if they would have won on that basis, however, I thought that anyone who fought using that decision stood a very good chance of winning - if they could afford to fight the battle on that front.

Interestingly enough, for console modders, it was Sony who fought in favor of that decision as it essentially legalized the sale of VCRs. Since Sony is now a content provider, I am sure that that is the reason they have resisted efforts to tame the DCMA and loosen their grip on consoles.

Maybe now, the US will get stand-alone Blu-Ray recorders, or something similar, which have been available in Japan since the very first days of Blu-ray.

IMHO, it is about time our govt came to its senses with these laws. Copying for personal use is a far cry different than copying for personal gain. Just when I was beginning to lose faith in the ability of the US Govt to actually rule and do something reasonable rather than pound its citizens with a bunch of industry inspired and hyped up laws that effectively do nothing but harm law abiding citizens, they come up with something like this. I hope it passes. If it does, it will finally indicate that some in government have finally removed their heads from where the sun does not shine.

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