Image: Gearstd/Shutterstock

US Copyright Office Recommends Permanent Ability to Unlock Cellphones

We shouldn’t have to retread the same ground every three years.

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Jun 22 2017, 9:24pm

Image: Gearstd/Shutterstock

The United States Copyright Office recommended in a report released Thursday that you, me, and everyone in between should permanently have the right to unlock our cellphones, a recommendation that would represent a major win for consumers and their right to reuse older cellphones on the wireless networks of their choosing.

"If Congress wishes to provide more certainty to users," the report reads, "the [Copyright] Office recommends the adoption of a permanent unlocking exemption."

Some background is in order. Under the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it's illegal to circumvent technological measures that restrict unauthorized access to copyrighted works. However, one of the clauses in the law, known as Section 1201, grants the Librarian of Congress (which helps administer copyright law) the ability to, every three years, grant certain exemptions to these restrictions.

Among the better-known exemptions pursued by the Librarian of Congress are those pertaining to cellphone unlocking. A brand new, locked cellphone is generally "locked" to the wireless network you bought it for: An AT&T smartphone will only work on AT&T, and a Sprint smartphone will only work on Sprint. That's done, essentially, to keep you tethered to your wireless carrier until the end of time. An unlocked smartphone, on the other hand, works on any network that it has the compatible radio for. Generally, Sprint and Verizon phones can work on each other's network while AT&T and T-Mobile phones can work on each other's networks.

And while wireless carriers have generally made it easier to unlock a cellphone over the years (provided you've paid it off in full), the US Copyright Office suggests that permanently granting this exemption is perhaps a better strategy than reauthorizing permission every three years.

"These locks provided no real cybersecurity or anti-piracy benefits, and they ultimately only served to lock consumers into using a single telecom carrier," Ferras Vinh, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Motherboard.

To be clear, today's report merely represents the recommendation of the US Copyright Office; any permanent change in policy regarding the ability to unlock cellphones would have to be taken up by Congress. Even if Congress can charitably be described as a complete disaster, Cory Doctorow, special consultant at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a longtime opponent of Digital Rights Management (DRM), noted that giving consumers the permanent ability to legally unlock their cellphones could be the rare piece of legislation that appeals to both parties.

"At the end of the day, everybody's got a phone, and nobody likes rules that prohibit things like carrier switching or who can fix their phone," Doctorow told Motherboard. "Everybody in Congress gets a win out of that."