Americans rose up to do something about one of the country’s most disliked copyright laws—but only when their smartphones were in danger.
If you purchased your smartphone after January 2013, it’s against the law to alter the software on it. In protest, a White House petition called “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal” reached more than 100,000 signatures Thursday morning.
That means the White House is now obliged to make a formal statement on the matter.
Due to a peculiar interpretation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) by the Librarian of Congress in November, you can’t unlock your own phone. (Technically, that interpretation came years ago and was put on hold in 2006, and the Librarian just removed the hold.) And while this is an unprecedented groundswell of opposition, that law has a long history of enraging the Internet.
Signed into law back in 1998, the DMCA’s been the source of a host of other problems. It dictates the cat-and-mouse game of enforcing copyright: Someone who thinks their content is being infringed on invokes the law to send takedown notices. As you might imagine, that’s led to countless accusations of DMCA-enabled censorship and accidental takedowns of people’s non-infringing blogs, music, and movies.
According to Sina Khanifar, who created the petition after successfully battling Motorola in court over unlocking his phone:
The DMCA includes anti-circumvention provisions that are intended to protect music and movie owners who want to distribute their work digitally, but are afraid of piracy. The provisions prohibit anyone from circumventing the locks that control access to copyrighted works. For example, DVDs are protected by a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system that attempts to prevent anyone from easily making copies of movies. The DMCA prohibits circumventing that type of protection system.
But unlocking a phone has nothing to do with copyright infringement, and using the DMCA to prosecute unlocking cell phones is not what the law was intended for.
Until recently, a We the People petition only needed 25,000 signatures to merit a response. But the petition site’s rapid rise in popularity led the White House to raise the bar and quadruple that number. Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal is now in rarefied company: Only five standing petitions, out of more than two hundred, have reached the 100,000 threshold.
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