U.S. Copyright Office Prohibits Phone Unlocking

By Hilda Scott email: , Jan 26, 2013 05:59 PM EST

The U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress have made the "unlocking" of cell phones illegal, starting Saturday. To "unlock" a mobile device means to allow the device to be used on another carrier's network other than the one that it's banded to. The copyright law known as the Digital Media Copyright Act makes it illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access." In layman's terms, it simply means it is not legal to unlock a cell phone which was designed and manufactured with software for a specific carrier, without that carrier's consent.

According to Wired, phone unlocking was twice exempted from the DMCA, first in 2006 and again in 2010, but now the U.S. Copyright Office and the Library of Congress are no longer allowing it. Every three years, the Copyright Office re-examines exemptions so the rule could change within the next few years. Cell phone carriers don't particularly go after individuals to take civil action, but they now could if they really wanted to. As ABC News reports, Washington, D.C. attorney Brad Shear said, "Violations of the DMCA [unlocking your phone] may be punished with a civil suit or, if the violation was done for commercial gain, it may be prosecuted as a criminal act. A carrier may sue for actual damages or for statutory damages."

There are instances in which people want to unlock their phone. For those who travel, a SIM card can be purchased in any country and roaming charges can be avoided. Some people like to sell their old phone once they upgrade to a new phone and unlocking the phone brings in more potential buyers.  "I don't see carriers going aggressively after people, but bottom line is that I would not recommend violating this provision of the law," Shear said.

If you already own an unlocked phone that was purchased before Saturday, you're completely safe. Any new phones purchased after, fall under the new rule. The ruling may not have much of an effect on consumers and some manufacturers like Apple and Google offer unlocked versions of their handsets.

Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told ABC news that there will be another rulemaking over the unlocking of cell phones in 2015. For consumers who would like speak out against the ruling, a petition is available on the White House's Web site calling for the Library of Congress to reverse its decision and make phone unlocking legal once again.

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