WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When consumers buy a cell phone or tablet, the cost is often subsidized in exchange for a two-year contract with a network carrier. Software encrypts or locks devices so that they cannot be used with any other network.
A lawmaker from Vermont recently helped push a bill that would ensure that consumers can unlock their devices after their contracts are completed, without permission from their carrier,
Carriers overwhelmingly wish to protect what they see as their intellectual property from opposing network competition.
U.S. Senator (D-Vt.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy boasted the benefits of recycling, donating or repurposing used phones and tablets and encouraging consumer's choice and competition among carriers.
"Consumers should be able to use their existing cell phones when they move their service to a new wireless provider," Leahy said when introducing a bill that would ensure that ability. "Our laws should not prohibit consumers from carrying their cell phones to a new network, and we should promote and protect competition in a wireless marketplace."
In January 2013, an over 114,000-signature petition made its way to the Obama administration calling for laws regarding unlocking cell phones to meet consumer demand. The petition was prompted by an earlier decision made by the Library of Congress, which handles copyright issues for the government.
Every three years, the Library of Congress has an opportunity to look at technologies designed to evade locks that manufactures place on devices to protect their intellectual property. Cellphone unlocking was considered an exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act since 2006 up until the library's October 2012 decision, which made cellphone unlocking illegal to anyone but the carrier.
In March 2013, Leahy and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, S.517, in order to make it legal to unlock a cell phone after the carrier contract is expired. The bill would reinstate the exception to copyright law.
Since the law cannot mandate that networks unlock cellphones upon request, and many people do not have the technological savvy to do so, the act was modified. On July 10, Leahy and Grassley offered an amendment, which was accepted, adding a provision allowing consumers to seek help unlocking their devices from a third party.
The bill passed the senate on July 16 with unanimous consent. "I applaud the senate for so quickly passing the bipartisan (bill), which puts consumers first and promotes competition in the wireless phone marketplace," Leahy stated in a press release.
President Barack Obama made a pledge to sign the bill into law on July 25, the day the House passed the legislation with a voice vote. The legislation is awaiting the president's passage or veto.
The Library of Congress will revisit cell phone unlocking in late 2015 when they review copyright issues again. If the president signs the bill into law, the library could reverse it, deciding that there should be no exception to copyright law, rendering Leahy and Grassley's bill useless.
To prevent throwing the issue back and forth between the legislature and the Library of Congress, circumvention of technology would need to be revisited in the form of copyright reform.
Copyright reform would have broader implications for intellectual property. If certain circumvention measures were made illegal, companies like Keurig, or those that make hearing aides or farm equipment that use encryption software, could lose control over the marketplace.
A few U.S. House lawmakers, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013, H.R.1892, to meet the need for such copyright reform. That bill no longer has a chance of being enacted, but would have made the circumvention of a technological measure illegal if its purpose was to engage in a use that is not an infringement of federal copyright law.