Unlocking your smartphone will soon be illegal, and other DMCA new rule insanity

unlocked phone dmca illegalEvery three years, the Register of Copyrights at the Library of Congress reviews the ways in which consumers may or may not circumvent Digital Rights Management (DRM) of copyrighted products covered under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — what you can and cannot do, legally, with the gadgets and digital content you buy. And yesterday, the latest rulings (see below) came in — some of it good, some bad, some decidedly insane. Here is a quick breakdown of what you cannot do with your smartphones, tablets, DVDs, game-consoles, and more, according to the law.

Note: The new rules below go into effect on Sunday, October 28, 2012.

Jailbreaking smartphones: Allowed

Jailbreaking smartphones to allow users to download “unauthorized” apps has been legal under DMCA since 2010, and nothing changes for this year.

Jailbreaking tablets: Illegal

In a decision that some might call “crazy,” the Register has decided that tablets may not be jailbroken, even though smartphones are exempt. Their reason? Because dang near anything could be considered a “tablet” these days, including e-readers, handheld game consoles, or even laptops. Because of this so-called lack of definition, the Register says that jailbreaking your tablet (or “tablet”) is against the law.

Unlocking smartphones: Illegal

That’s right — unlocking your smartphone so you can take it to another wireless carrier will soon be illegal, unless authorized by your carrier. This, despite the fact that the Register has allowed unlocking since 2006.

There are some exceptions to this rule — but they aren’t worth cheering for. Specifically, you may unlock any phone you own now, or buy between now and “ninety days after the effective date of this exemption.” As of January 2013, however, unlocking your device without permission is decidedly against the law.

Now, you’re probably asking “Why in tarnation did they change this?” Because, according to the Register, the firmware on your phone — the software that, among other things, locks you into a specific carrier — is copyrighted, and therefore cannot be changed without violating the law. And since there are many more unlocked handsets on the market nowadays, and wireless carriers often provide ways for customers to unlock their phones, there’s really no reason for you to do what you want with your device. Makes sense, right? Right?! Sigh…

DVD ripping: Illegal (mostly)

Ripping a DVD you legally own so you can watch the movie or TV shows on a device that cannot play DVDs, like a tablet or laptop without an optical drive, is illegal. Same goes for CDs. As Michael Weinberg of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge notes, this rule “flies in the face of reality,” especially given the fact that both the MPAA and RIAA agree that consumers should be allowed to do this.

There are some exceptions to this rule, however: The Register now allows ripping DVDs in order to use “short portions of motion pictures for the purpose of criticism or comment,” as long as the clips are used in noncommercial videos, documentaries, and videos used for teaching purposes in kindergarten through college.

Game console modding: Illegal

Modding your game console to run software other than what came on the device is still illegal for the same reason that unlocking a smartphone is illegal — it requires changes to the firmware, which are copyright protected.

Wins for disabled customers

As maddening as some of the changes listed above may be, the Register did make some good exemptions for customers with vision and hearing impairments. Namely, hearing impaired customers may circumvent any “technological measures” included in e-books that prevent them from using read-aloud technology. Also, it is now legal to crack DVDs in order to create DVD players “capable of rendering visual representations of the audible portions of such works and/or audible representations or descriptions of the visual portions of such works to enable an individual who is blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing” — as long as the DVD was obtained legally, of course. Researchers are also allowed to crack DVDs for research purposes.

DMCA facepalm

Clearly, some of these new rules (no jailbreaking tablets, no ripping DVDs so you can watch them on tablets, no unlocking phones without permission) are ridiculous from a user standpoint. But such is the complicated (some would say “broken”) nature of copyright law. Let us know your thoughts on the new rules in the comments. And check out the full ruling below.

DMCA Rules 2012