Did you know that as of Jan 26, 2013, it's "illegal" to unlock your phone? Of course you did. You've seen the "Sky is falling!" headlines

It's not quite that simple, but that's what you'll hear around the Internets today. The too-long-didn't-read simple version is that you'll likely not be affected in any way (minus the personal freedom aspect). But after seeing so many people worried, and some of the poor information they were receiving, we knew it was time to talk about it a bit. 

In 1998 Congress passed a law that provides copyright protection to the software (and software means written code, remember) that locks your cell phone to a certain carrier. This has nothing to do with rooting, or bootloader unlocking. It only covers locking your phone to a GSM carrier through software. As a provision of this law, the Librarian of Congress (which I imagined as a totally hot babe with her hair in a bun, and was quickly disappointed when I investigated) is allowed to grant exceptions, and did until his October 2012 decision to allow the DMCA to regulate cell phone locking. Fast forward to today, when the exceptions expired, and now the software used to lock phones is covered under the same copyright laws as most other software.

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It sounds scary. But it's really not. Let's have a look.

What is really going on?

The first thing to realize is that if you bought your phone before today, none of this applies. The conditions and terms you agreed to when you bought your phone will still apply. Anything up until now is grandfathered in. But what about phones you'll buy tomorrow and beyond?

Well, unlocking phones to use on a different carrier without permission is now against the law. That's pretty crappy, but as the CTIA blog points out, this is no different than your car. Until you're finished paying off your loan for it -- and that's really what a smartphone subsidy is -- you're not allowed to transfer title without permission from the lien-holder. When you buy a subsidized phone on contract from your carrier, it is the lien-holder, and it's up to the carrier when and where you get to use it. Read the fine print on your car loan -- I'll bet you never knew the finance company could tell you you're not allowed to park your car in a place they don't like. Of course, that's not enforced. But that's not to say it can't be used against you in court.

Now, AT&T and T-Mobile and any other carrier can do the same thing. Does that suck? Yes, but it's a price you pay for getting the phone subsidized (financed). 

OK, what does that mean to me?

The good news is that, as the Librarian of Congress points out, carriers have "liberal, publicly available unlocking policies." AT&T will unlock your phone for you once you meet their criteria. So will Verizon. And that criteria hasn't changed now that the DMCA covers unlocking. Nine times out of ten, they will shoot you an unlock code if your bill is current and you have a legitimate need to use it. 

The gray area comes from using third-party unlocking sites. Under the letter of the law, these folks may be committing a crime if they do this sort of business in he U.S. (We've asked a few for their take but have yet to hear back.) You are, too, if you knowingly use their services. It's the same crime millions of Android users commit when they flash G apps -- not honoring the license for software they are using. As a user, you can be subject to civil penalties. That means you can be held liable to pay the affected party (your carrier) the amount of money they have been harmed (the cost of the phone), with additional assorted court fees. The penalties for folks unlocking phones to make money are more severe, and outside the scope of this blog post -- talk to a lawyer if you have those sort of questions.

Got it. Now how do I unlock my phone?

So, what do we need to do? Pretty much the same thing we always have done. If you need to unlock your phone, call AT&T or T-Mobile and ask them. They'll probably say yes, so long as your account is in good standing. (How new your phone is might affect things, too.) And it won't cost you anything if you give them a legitimate reason. Legit reasons are things like going on a trip and want to use a local SIM, or you need to use the phone in an area where they have poor coverage for work, or anything that sounds reasonable that doesn't make them think you're going to end your contract or sell the phone. I'm not saying you should lie to them, just deliver the truth the same way they do when they say unlimited.

T-Mobile has a simple, easy to read unlocking policy as you can see here. AT&T's policies are not so simple, but Dan over at WP Central managed to do it over the phone for his Lumia 900.

If they still say no, well I can't advise anyone to break the law, but I know what I would do -- head happily into that gray area like the honey badger.

A few more things worth mentioning

  • While the law covers all phones, it only really applies to GSM phones. CDMA phones (Verizon and Sprint) aren't "locked" on the device, and instead use a database that the carrier controls to decide if you can or can not use a particular phone on their network.
  • This does not apply to phones that are purchased unlocked. AT&T can't lock your Nexus 4 or any other unlocked device.
  • Finally, this only applies inside the US. If you're reading from elsewhere, you can feel free to sit back and smugly laugh at our laws. 

Hopefully, this answers any questions you might have had about this whole silly mess, and we can go back to arguing about which phones are better.

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