Is It Legal To Unlock The iPhone?

According to a Slate columnist, not only is it legal, but it’s ethical and fun. (Fun?) “I did just throw down more than $400 for this little toy,” he writes. “I’m no property-rights freak, but that iPhone is now my personal property, and that ought to stand for something.”

The two major issues in the unlocking restriction are:

  • The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which “makes it illegal to break digital locks to get at copyrighted works.” But last year, the librarian of Congress issued an exemption for unlocking for personal use:

As the librarian wrote, the locks “are used by wireless carriers to limit the ability of subscribers to switch to other carriers, a business decision that has nothing whatsoever to do with the interests protected by copyright.”

  • Your terms of service, which Apple claims you violate if you unlock the phone. The columnist’s opinion here is a bit murkier—Apple has taken great pains to make their unlocking ban legally enforceable by lumping it under “reverse engineering,” but “copyright allows reverse engineering for compatibility as a ‘fair use,'” writes the author.

The conclusion is that Apple’s ban on unlocking is more about Apple (and AT&T?) unfairly controlling the market and preventing competition than it is about protecting copyrighted software and works—in which case, it’s not a defensible business practice. While it is possible that writing software that unlocks the phone could be illegal, there’s probably nothing illegal about you, as a consumer, unlocking the phone that you bought with your own money in order to use it on competing cellular networks.

As readers pointed out in this post, maybe it’s time we ban the practice of locking phones altogether, to prevent companies from engaging in anti-competitive behavior like this.

“The iPhone Freedom Fighters” [Slate]

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“Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies” [Library of Congress] (look at Section 5 on page 5)
(Photo: Getty)