While there was a lot of talk after the White House agreed with an awful lot of people that mobile phone unlocking
should be legal, there's been little real action. Part of the problem might be that the White House suggested that this could be fixed via telecom law
, when the whole issue had nothing to do with telecom law, but the broken anticircumvention provisions of the DMCA, also known as 17 USC 1201
. While Congress did put forth a bunch of bills, they were all lacking
, and none seemed to really tackle the underlying problem: 17 USC 1201 is completely broken. It makes circumventing a technical protection measure a form of infringement, even if the circumvention has nothing to do with actual copyright infringement. Furthermore, it makes it illegal to "manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof," that is primarily designed for circumventing digital locks even if
the end use is not infringing.
Thankfully, Rep. Zoe Lofgren has finally introduced a real reform bill
that tries to tackle this issue, along with Rep. Thomas Massie, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Rep. Jared Polis. The bill, called the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013, changes the law to make it clear: if you circumvent some sort of digital lock for a reason that has nothing to do with infringement, it would no longer be illegal. Basically, it would add the following:
It shall not be a violation of this section to circumvent a technological measure in connection with a work protected under this title if the purpose of such circumvention is to engage in a use that is not an infringement of copyright under this title.
Similarly, circumvention tools that have primarily non-infringing uses would also be legalized. It would still be illegal to do that big list of things above if the intent is to infringe
, but merely creating the tools for non-infringing purposes would be legalized. Thus, tools for unlocking mobile phone, and the act of unlocking mobile phones, would be legal.
The bill also has two other key pieces. First, it makes it clear that it is not
copyright infringement to switch networks and then access or load a copy of software that is stored in RAM. This seems very specific, but some operators have argued that by putting in a clause in a user agreement that forbids switching networks, those who do so could infringe by then accessing software stored in memory.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the bill addresses the claims that fixing the DMCA would violate trade agreements
(we've heard seven different trade agreements would be violated with this simple fix of the DMCA) by telling the President that Congress says he needs to fix those agreements. Nice and simple:
The President shall take the necessary steps to secure modifications to applicable bilateral and multilateral trade agreements to which the United States is a party in order to ensure that such agreements are consistent with the amendments made by this Act.
This is actually really important. Because (just watch) copyright maximalists love to scream about how changes like this would "violate our international obligations" (while leaving out the fact that they were the ones who wrote half of those agreements in the first place). But the fact is that Congress
has authority over international trade, not the executive branch. So if Congress wants, as would be the case with this bill, it can order the executive branch to change or fix any international agreements that get in the way of good law.