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What the ban on unlocking phones means (worse than you think)

You will have heard that the US Copyright Office has lifted the temporary ruling under which you were allowed to unlock your phone. EFF explains in detail what this ruling means (it's not what you think -- and in some ways, it's worse):

First, the good news. The legal shield for jailbreaking and rooting your phone remains up - it'll protect us at least through 2015. The shield for unlocking your phone is down, but carriers probably aren't going to start suing customers en masse, RIAA-style. And the Copyright Office's decision, contrary to what some sensational headlines have said, doesn't necessarily make unlocking illegal.

Unlocking is in a legal grey area under the DMCA. The law was supposed to protect creative works, but it's often been misused by electronics makers to block competition and kill markets for used goods. The courts have pushed back, ruling that the DMCA doesn't protect digital locks that keep digital devices from talking to each other when creative work isn't involved. And no creative work is involved here: Wireless carriers aren't worried about "piracy" of the software on their phones, they're worried about people reselling subsidized phones at a profit. So if the matter ever reached a court, it might well decide that the DMCA does not forbid unlocking a phone.

Now, the bad news. While we don’t expect mass lawsuits anytime soon, the threat still looms. More likely, wireless carriers, or even federal prosecutors, will be emboldened to sue not individuals, but rather businesses that unlock and resell phones. If a court rules in favor of the carriers, penalties can be stiff - up to $2,500 per unlocked phone in a civil suit, and $500,000 or five years in prison in a criminal case where the unlocking is done for "commercial advantage." And this could happen even for phones that are no longer under contract. So we're really not free to do as we want with devices that we own.

All that said, if you were convicted, the maximum penalty under the law for unlocking your phone is now greater than the maximum penalty for turning it into an IED.

Is It Illegal To Unlock a Phone? The Situation is Better - and Worse - Than You Think

Americans explain why jailbreaking should be legal

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has selected some of the best submissions from the Copyright Office's review of whether it should continue to be legal in the USA to "jailbreak" your devices in order to make them more suited to their needs. In this post, we hear from a deaf man who jailbreaks his phone so that he can use it as an assistive device at work; a military worker in Kuwait who jailbreaks his phone so he can quickly access the flashlight function to scare off dangerous wildlife near the base; and a nurse whose jailbroken device allows her to "track my performance, treatments used on patients, and the effects of those treatments, much faster with customizations that are not available on a device that is not jailbroken."

A note for Canadians: Bill C-11, Canada's proposed copyright law, has no similar exemption-setting process. That means that if MP James Moore succeeds in passing his legislation, it would be illegal to modify your property in the ways described here.

Kevin McLeod is a deaf man who uses his Android phone — a Samsung Epic 4G — to assist him with communication, record-keeping, and time management. Like many deaf people, he uses video relay service (VRS) software on his phone to “work on a level playing field with hearing peers and have productive and meaningful careers.” He had these comments for the Copyright Office:

I need a phone that can run VRS software through the day without having to recharge every other hour. The stock phone I received can't do that. I had to upgrade to a more powerful battery. Then I installed an alternative version of the Android operating system called CleanGB that removes most of the carrier-installed software. This freed up memory and battery resources I need to stay connected.

We need the ability to modify our devices because manufacturers and carriers can't possibly anticipate all the needs of their customers. We need flexibility to make the most of the terrific tools they build for us. I love the power and connectivity my phone gives me. I love that I can customize it to meet my unique needs.

Letters to the Copyright Office: Why I Jailbreak

(Image: Jailbreaking the iPhone - 06, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from yugen's photostream)

EFF to Copyright Office: let my tablets, consoles, and phones go!


It's time for the triennial Copyright Office hearings on exemptions to the anti-circumvention measures in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Copyright Office will entertain submissions on when and how it should be legal to break DRM. In the last round, EFF successfully petititoned the Copyright Officeto legalize jailbreaking iPhones to enable the installation of software that Apple hadn't approved -- but the Office didn't make it legal to produce or distribute tools for this, nor did they extend the ruling to the iPad.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking the Copyright office for an ambitious group of exemptions this time around:

In the exemption requests filed today, EFF asked the Copyright Office to protect the "jailbreaking" of smartphones, electronic tablets, and video game consoles – liberating them to run operating systems and applications from any source, not just those approved by the manufacturer. EFF also asked for legal protections for artists and critics who use excerpts from DVDs or downloading services to create new, remixed works. These exemptions build on and expand exemptions that EFF won last year for jailbreakers and remix artists.

"The DMCA is supposed to block copyright infringement. But instead it can be misused to threaten creators, innovators, and consumers, discouraging them from making full and fair use of their own property," said EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry. "Hobbyists and tinkerers who want to modify their phones or video game consoles to run software programs of their choice deserve protection under the law. So do artists and critics who use short excerpts of video content to create new works of commentary and criticism. Copyright law shouldn't be stifling such uses – it should be encouraging them."

EFF Seeks to Widen Exemptions Won in Last DMCA Rulemaking

(Image: Jailbreaking Apple iPod touch, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from fhke's photostream)