It’s been a nearly two-year ordeal to right the wrong perpetrated in the fall of 2012 by the Librarian of Congress, who used his discretion to reinterpret the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to state that cellphones are effectively the property of your wireless carrier, even if you’ve long since paid full price for the phone.
The LOC’s industry-backed argument was based on the idea that the apps and other software required to run cellphones is not purchased, but is instead licensed by the user. Thus, in order to legally unlock a device and take it to a new carrier, the consumer would need to get permission from that licensor.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, that’s because it is.
Regardless, in early 2013, it became illegal to unlock a new phone or table without permission. Compounding the problem, there are no laws compelling carriers to agree to unlock customers’ devices.
The backlash was immediate and massive, with people flooding a White House petition asking the President to overturn the LOC’s ruling. In March 2013, the President responded to the petition, saying he agreed with consumers and directing his administration to see what could be done.
The FCC directed the wireless industry to come up with its own guidelines to make unlocking easier. While those rules are better than nothing, they are not legally binding and still operate under the misguided notion that a consumer doesn’t own her phone.
Meanwhile, legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate to override the LOC’s harebrained actions.
Initially, both versions were identical, but the version that passed through the House in early 2014 included some last-minute language changes that caused many advocacy groups to drop their support.
The language limited the unlocking of phones to individuals and left open the door to future DMCA restrictions on bulk unlocking. This raised concerns that a company could use copyright as an excuse to inhibit certain business models, even if the business isn’t actually infringing anyone’s copyright.
That language was not in the version that the President is signing today.
You still need to own your phone outright in order to unlock it legally. Additionally, unlocking your phone won’t help if you want to switch to a new carrier with an incompatible network. But if you’ve fulfilled your contractual obligation to your current provider and your new wireless provider uses a network that’s compatible with your current device, you can unlock it yourself and be on your merry way.