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Is It Illegal to Unlock the iPhone?


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image copyright US Library of Congress
Updated January 28, 2013

When you buy an iPhone whose price is subsidized by a phone company, you're signing up to use that phone company's service (usually for two years). Even though many iPhones can work on multiple phone company networks, when your initial contract expires, your iPhone is often still "locked" to the company you bought it from.

The question is: Can you use software to remove that lock and use your iPhone on another company's network? If you live in the United States, starting Jan. 25, 2013, it is illegal to unlock your iPhone, or other cellphone, in most cases.

When people want to change phone companies without having to buy a new iPhone, many people "unlock" their iPhones. Unlocking refers to using software to modify the phone so it works with more than one phone carrier. Some phone companies will unlock phones under certain conditions, others are a bit less welcoming of this (after all, if you're locked to their network, the likelihood is that you'll stay their customer). As a result, some people unlock their phones on their own or pay other (non-phone) companies to do it for them.

Thanks to the new ruling by the U.S. Library of Congress, though, this is no longer legal.

The Ruling
The Library of Congress has authority over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law designed to govern copyright issues in the digital age. Thanks to this authority, the Library of Congress provides exceptions to and interpretations of the law.

In Oct. 2012, the Library of Congress ruled on how the DMCA affects unlocking all cellphones, including the iPhone. That ruling, which starts on page 16 of the linked PDF, went into effect on Jan. 25, 2013. It says that, because there are a number of phones that users can buy unlocked right out of the box (instead of having to unlock them with software), unlocking cellphones is now a violation of the DMCA and is illegal.

The Conditions
While that may sound very restrictive, it's important to know that this doesn't apply to all phones. There are a few conditions that can help you figure out if your phone is affected. The ruling only applies to:

  • phones bought after Jan. 25, 2013
  • phones that are subsidized by phone companies. If you paid $199 for your iPhone, its price was subsidized by the phone company you bought it from. If you paid $499 or more, it probably wasn't.
  • phones in the U.S. The DMCA and Library of Congress have no authority outside the U.S.

If you bought your phone before Jan. 24, 2013, paid full price for it, bought an unlocked phone, or live outside the U.S., it's still legal for you to unlock your phone.

It's also important to know that many phone companies will unlock your phone. In order to do this, you'll usually need to complete your original contract with that company and then pay a fee of some kind for them to unlock the phone. This is still legal under the ruling.

Affected Phones
This ruling affects all cellphones sold in the U.S. That includes smartphones like the iPhone and Android phones, as well as traditional cell phones and pre-paid phones. Basically, any kind of phone other than a landline (and maybe satellite phones) is covered by this ruling.

Enforcement/Consequences of Unlocking
So, unlocking an iPhone is now illegal, but what does that really mean? And can you easily be caught?

I'm not a lawyer (I hope that's obvious), so take this with a grain of salt, but it seems unlikely that individuals unlocking their phones are likely to be discovered or prosecuted. It is, of course, possible under this new interpretation, but tracking down individuals and enforcing this rule seems like more trouble than it's worth. If this rule gets tested in court, I'd expect to see it used against companies that provide unlocking services to customers for a fee. I suppose, though, that in that situation, all of that company's customers could be on the hook as well.

What About Jailbreaking?
There's another term used often in conjunction with unlocking: jailbreaking. Though they often are discussed together, they're not the same thing. Unlike unlocking, which lets you switch phone companies, jailbreaking removes restrictions on your iPhone placed there by Apple and allows you to install non-App Store software or make other low-level changes. So, what's the fate of jailbreaking under this ruling?

There's no change. The Library of Congress previously said that jailbreaking is legal and this ruling upholds that (starting on page 12 of the PDF linked to above, if you're interested).

The Bottom Line
If you bought a carrier-subsidized iPhone (or cellphone of any kind) in the U.S. after Jan. 24, 2013, it is now illegal to unlock that phone yourself. If your phone company offers unlocking, you can discuss it with them, but otherwise, when you commit to a phone company, you'll be sticking with them--unless you buy a full-price, unlocked phone, that is.

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