The Fight Isn't About Unlocking Mobile Phones, But Whether You Actually Own What You Bought
from the unlock-everything dept
One of the reasons that we’re so concerned about the weak proposals introduced in Congress concerning mobile phone unlocking is that they all seek to add yet another layer of duct tape to outdated copyright law. As we’ve pointed out for years, every time technology bumps up against copyright, rather than fix the problem, Congress tries to rush in with some duct tape narrowly focused on just that issue. It creates a huge mess of a law and does little to nothing to fix the actual problem.
Kyle Wiens has an excellent opinion piece over at Wired that points out that the focus shouldn’t be on unlocking mobile phones, but on our rights to unlock everything we own. This is what ownership is supposed to be about — and it’s that right of ownership that copyright maximalists, and companies abusing copyright law, have been seeking to strip from the public over and over again.
We really don’t own our stuff anymore (at least not fully); the manufacturers do. Because modifying modern objects requires access to information: code, service manuals, error codes, and diagnostic tools. Modern cars are part horsepower, part high-powered computer. Microwave ovens are a combination of plastic and microcode. Silicon permeates and powers almost everything we own.
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. Fortune 500 telecom manufacturer Avaya, for example, is known for suing service companies, accusing them of violating copyright for simply using a password to log in to their phone systems. That’s right: typing in a password is considered “reproducing copyrighted material.”
This is a big and important issue, and the fight over mobile phone unlocking is just one symptom of a broken system that is in desperate need of fixing. And yet, as we noted, this issue isn’t even touched in the Copyright Office’s call for copyright reform.
As Wiens points out, this is not what copyright law is supposed to to.
It hasn’t always been that way. Copyright laws were originally designed to protect creativity and promote innovation. But now, they are doing exactly the opposite: They’re being used to keep independent shops from fixing new cars. They’re making it almost impossible for farmers to maintain their equipment. And, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, they’re preventing regular people from unlocking their own cellphones.
If we really believe in true property rights, there should never be a question about the legality of unlocking a product you legally purchased.