In August, President Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, a law ensuring that US companies and consumers have the right to unlock their own cellphones. Now, just a few months later, the American people are petitioning the Librarian of Congress for that same right again. That’s politics, folks.
Fixing modern cars requires special diagnostic tools and official service information—information that some manufacturers don’t share with independent technicians. But all that is changing. Automotive Right to Repair just became a nationwide policy, thanks almost exclusively to voters in Massachusetts. Back in 2012, they passed the first Automotive Right to Repair Bill in the nation. Last month, industry groups announced the law would become the basis of a national right to repair policy.
When you purchase a physical object, you don’t actually buy the software in it — that code belongs to someone else. If you do something the manufacturer doesn’t like — repair it, hack it, unlock it — you could lose the right to use “their” software in “your” thing. And as these lines between physical and digital blur, it pits copyright and physical ownership rights against each other.
Yesterday, TechNews Daily ran an article insisting “you don’t need Congress to unlock your phone.” Their reasoning: “You can unlock your phone today, illegally, and feel confident you won’t end up in jail.” TechNews is right. In all likelihood, nothing will happen. But the DMCA has hindered academic researchers, made it difficult to repair hardware, and even hampered voice-to-text programs that help the blind read ebooks. Support copyright reform at FixtheDMCA.org.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld your right to resell. The case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, related to Supap Kirtsaeng, who bought cheap, lawfully made textbooks in Thailand, mailed them to the United States, and sold them to U.S. students via eBay. Publishing company John Wiley & Sons claimed copyright infringement. SCOTUS disagreed. And that’s good, because while the case concerned textbooks, it could have had implications on the legality of re-selling any product made overseas.
Who owns our stuff? The answer used to be obvious. Now, with electronics integrated into just about everything, the answer has changed. We really don’t own our stuff anymore (at least not fully); the manufacturers do. This is a property rights issue, and current copyright law gets it backwards, turning regular people—like students, researchers, and small business owners—into criminals.
In October, the Library of Congress canceled an exemption that protected unlocking cell phones without carrier permission. The decision, which effectively banned legal unlocking, sparked public contention: More than 114,000 people signed a petition demanding that the ban be lifted. Yesterday, the White House added its name to the ban’s list of opponents, declaring “It’s time to legalize cell phone unlocking.” So, what’s next for unlocking?