DRM, Phone Unlocking, and Making Copyright Law Make Sense
DRM, Phone Unlocking, and Making Copyright Law Make Sense
DRM, Phone Unlocking, and Making Copyright Law Make Sense

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    There’s been a lot of talk about the damage DRM can do.
    Here’s one small way to repair that—make sure phone unlocking is legal again.

    Last week, Cory Doctorow wrote this lengthy, thoughtful piece about DRM and the laws, like the anticircumvention provisions in section 1201 of the DMCA, that make it illegal for people to circumvent DRM. He gives a concise history of the lobbying and laws leading up to the current situation, and follows that up with an analysis of how this whole system perverts the relationships between publishers and consumers, and between all of us and the computers we like to call our own.

    Mike Masnick at Techdirt follows up on a couple of the more specific points within the piece, talking about how DRM can undermine our computer security, and even give publishers the right to make up new, more restrictive copyright laws . Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish Pirate Party even goes so far as to say that the continued existence of laws like the DMCA render the rest of copyright law “a lie,” since the law could just enforce whatever restrictions are built into the software, regardless of whether those restrictions are based upon any other law at all.

    That might be putting it in relatively absolutist terms, since there are certain small limits on what courts will enforce through section 1201: a few appellate courts want to make sure that there’s at least a “nexus” between the prohibited act and some sort of copyright infringement, and there is, on paper at least, the rulemaking procedures held every three years at the Library of Congress, in which certain users are blessed with the ability to circumvent certain types of DRM for certain purposes.

    But even this small bright spot fails to make up for the ways in which DRM can be abused. A major case in point: section 1201 still stands between you and unlocking your own phone. Phone unlocking, incidentally, is all about being able to use a phone you already own when you switch networks. As such, it has next to no effect on any copyright laws, unless you’re just looking for excuses to throw into a consumer’s path. That, of course, is exactly what the copyright case against phone unlocking is—a legal pretext that very few are willing to defend publicly on principle. (While the FCC has taken steps to make unlocking easier, it doesn’t remove the underlying source of the problem in section 1201.)

    And yet here we are, over a year since over 114,000 Americans demanded that phone unlocking be made legal, and nearly a year since the White House agreed that Congress should make that happen. Bipartisan legislation to do just that has passed the House Judiciary Committee, and just needs to be taken up again to make this simple fix.

    Even this law has a time limit on it, though. It makes phone unlocking legal by reversing the latest decision of the Library of Congress, and only lasts until the next rulemaking comes along. If the triennial pattern holds, that would be scheduled for early 2015. So if it’s going to do anything at all, it needs to get done soon. That might seem like a small thing to ask for, but in the topsy-turvy world of DRM, even one initial bit of sanity can go a long way to making things right.

    Original image by Flickr user Travis Isaacs.