The Library of Congress has announced that it will no longer be legal to unlock or “jail break” cell phones after Saturday 26 January without the permission of the carrier you originally bought the phone from.
Up to now, jail-breaking was legal, if frowned upon by the major big-name carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and others. As of to-day, it is also illegal unless they approve the unlocking. Note: “illegal” does not mean that it runs counter to Congressional law signed by the President, nor skirting Presidential decree, but it means violating a Library of Congress ruling under the authority of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed in 1998. This law is meant to be part of a global effort to protect intellectual property such as the work of authors, artists, musicians and others from being published without their permission or otherwise exploited by the use of digital equipment such as computers, smart phones, tablets, and future devices.
Actually cell phones purchased in the past may still be unlocked without the permission of the cell carrier that sold the phone. The decree's rationale was that the phone's software must be protected under the DMCA. Also, since you license but do not own that software, essentially, you do not own, but only license the phone and its capabilities. The ruling by the Library of Congress will have the effect of strengthening the oligopolistic hold that the major carriers have on the industry from now on. Oligopolies are market environments controlled by a few—not by one as in monopolies, or many as in a free market economy.
Jail-breaking is the process of an individual buying a phone that is not sold by a given carrier and modifying that phone so that it could be used on the carrier’s cellular network. Unlocking is the preferred term. Remember when AT&T exclusively sold the iPhone? People bought them, unlocked them, and made them usable on other networks. And they were relatively cheap.
Unlocking got around the fact that most U.S. cell phones are sold by the big-name carriers. The major makers such as Apple, Samsung, HTC and Microsoft tailor-made their phones so that each carrier's phones had unique features exclusive to their own phones, so an Apple iPhone 5™ bought at a Sprint store will not work on AT&T’s network and vice versa.
The major carrier’s networks use different methods to handle cell phone traffic through their own system of transmitters, receivers, cell towers, and, of course cell phone instruments. Verizon and Sprint use Code Division Multi-Access (CDMA) on their networks and AT&T uses GSM.
The cell phone carriers heavily discount the cost of a cell phone to lure customers to buy a phone from them and sign a two year contract. An iPhone retails at $349 with a two year contract and $849.99 retail without one at two different major carriers. The cost of a two year contract with the cheapest data plan, and an insurance plan to replace lost or damaged phones is $199 “out the door” and $101 monthly for two years.
This article has been featuring the iPhone as an example because it was a prime target for being unlocked a few years ago because of its enormous popularity and usefulness.
So, what does the ruling mean? Reportedly, as shown above, it is easier to buy unlocked phones from major manufacturers than it was a few years ago, just more expensive. Are copyrights actually going to be protected? Will prices for phones go up or come down? Industry, government, and tech “experts” do not currently have the answers to these questions, so we shall see.