The White House Unlocks

I rarely say this: good for the President.

The White House on Monday said consumers should be allowed to “unlock” their phones and tablets and switch wireless networks after their contracts run out without fear of breaking the law.

Most mobile gadgets contain software that prevents a smartphone user on, say, AT&T’s network from switching the device to run on a rival system. The blocks can be easily removed with programs that can be downloaded from the Web.

In January, the Library of Congress made unlocking a violation of a little-known provision of copyright law. Anyone who tried to do so could face criminal and civil penalties.

The Library’s logic was that, under the DMCA — one of the most onerous pieces of legislation of the last twenty years — the software on devices is copyrighted. To unlock the phones, you have to bypass that software. There may be a technical legal point in there. But practically, it is ridiculous to claim that a piece of software should lock a device to one company forever.

Overturning the Library’s rule, however, is a patch of a system that is under increasing strain. Copyright has simply gotten out of control in this country. Fair use frequently runs into problems from litigious copyright holders. If the music companies got there way, you wouldn’t even be able to think about music without paying them a fee. Something has got to give, eventually. And it’s either going to be our basic freedoms or the DMCA.

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