A number of news outlets have covered the fact that, by tomorrow, it will be illegal for you to unlock your cellphone. In other words, for the next 10 or so hours, you can hack your AT&T-bought phone to work on T-Mobile’s network, completely free of the threat of being sued. It’s long been an open question as to whether or not unlocking a phone would actually violate the law, but the Copyright Office seems to think so, and while it said that phone unlocking should be legal back in 2010, it changed its mind last year, creating a much more limited exception (you had to ask your phone company for permission first and wait a “reasonable period of time” for their “no”), which expires tomorrow.
After this, if you try to unlock your phone yourself, you run the risk of getting sued and having to pay a plaintiff $2,500. You could even potentially be prosecuted for up to $500,000 and imprisoned for 5 years. Because you wanted to take a phone you bought and use it with a different carrier.
There’s a lot of problems with how this is happening, but suffice to say, it’s a little ridiculous to think that copyright laws are intended to prevent people from switching between different phone providers easily. Instead of being used to reward authors and creators (it’s not like the phone firmware is a big cash cow for anyone), it’s being used to lock customers in to their existing providers, hurting their ability to vote with their feet and switch to a competitor.
The parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that make phone locking arguably illegal are the same parts that make it illegal for you to rip DVDs so you can watch them on your phone or tablet. While you’re perfectly free to do this with an audio CD, the mere addition of some software on a DVD is enough to put it into a whole other legal category. Do the same thing to CDs, and ripping them would be illegal, too. (The only thing that stopped that from happening universally was the fact that some of the early efforts were complete disasters that in essence hacked consumers’ computers and exposed them to all sorts of security vulnerabilities.)
While I’m sure the movie studios would like everyone to purchase multiple versions of each movie in different formats, they seem resigned to the fact that people tend to want o buy any given thing just once. So more and more these days, you buy a DVD and get a code for a separate digital copy for other devices. So preventing movie-watching on iPads isn’t the reason for the DMCA. The claim is that the law prevents piracy.
Of course, as the MPAA is happy to tell legislators when asking for increases on copyright enforcement, infringing movies are available online (and notably DRM-free) shortly after theatrical release, let alone DVD release. So the law clearly isn’t doing much good there.
Instead we have a law that is preventing consumers and users from doing some very commonsense things with their technology? This doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole thing should be scrapped, but it does tell us that something is very wrong here, and it’ll take more than dithering over it every three years to fix.