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.