Legalized Phone Unlocking on Congress' Agenda with DMCA Reform

By Steve Anderson May 10, 2013

While there has been quite a bit of controversy generated by Congress lately--as is the case with most years--one of the biggest controversies emerged when the Library of Congress issued a set of new rules according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that essentially made it illegal, nationwide, to unlock a cell phone. This gave consumers a lot less choice in the market and, many thought, unduly tied consumers' hands on several fronts. But new bipartisan legislation may bring a bit of sense to the mobile device market and give consumers back the right to unlock devices.

Once the new rules went into effect, response was swift on most every front. An online petition went up and got the necessary 100,000 signatures to require a White House response, which in turn called for revision to the rules to get unlocking back in customers' hands. Three bills quickly followed in Congress, but these bills didn't go as far as they should have, according to copyright reform groups.

The bills in question, it was said, didn't really provide the necessary protection for the consumers to make modifications to things they had already purchased. Worse, the bills didn't really address the underlying problem of it being a crime to "circumvent" copy protection, even when the circumventing in question was done in pursuit of a legal purpose.

The new legislation, however, looks to fix that by making one critical point particularly clear: under the new bill, the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013, not only is cell phone unlocking explicitly made legal, but also the DMCA is modified to note that beating any copy protection system is only illegal when done to "facilitate the infringement of a copyright." That means that making copies of DVDs for personal home use would be once again legal--allowing "fair use" to be legal--as well as extending to other segments of the market. Converting copyrighted materials into versions for the blind would be open, as well as letting car owners perform service and modification on privately-owned vehicles.

The new legislation--introduced by Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, both California Democrats, Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, and Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican--has brought in quite a bit of support from advocacy groups glad to see such a sweeping reform in favor of the consumer.

Overall, the new bill looks sound, and helps provide important legal protection for a variety of users, from consumers to educators and researchers. Allowing users to have the tools to carry out lawful purposes--the doctrine of "fair use" is one that's been hotly debated for some time--would seem to make sense at the outset. The bill was introduced just yesterday, reportedly, so a vote may be some time in coming. Still, if it goes through, it may well open up some new opportunities for users to use products they own in different ways.

Edited by Alisen Downey

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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