Before I get into the legislative weeds of the DMCA (don’t worry, the acronym will be fully explained below), I want to be completely clear that AT&T’s policy is to unlock our customers’ devices if they’ve met the terms of their service agreements and we have the unlock code. It’s a straightforward policy, and we aim to make the unlocking process as easy as possible. So, why all the recent hullabaloo? As promised, let’s talk about the Library of Congress and walk through some copyright law…
Federal law makes it unlawful to circumvent technological measures employed by copyright owners to protect their property, including software. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Librarian of Congress conducts a periodic review to determine whether or not users of copyrighted work – in this case device owners – will be adversely affected by this legal prohibition in their ability to engage in non-infringing uses The Librarian can grant exemptions to the prohibition. The Librarian had previously approved a broad exception for unlocking mobile handsets.
On October 28, 2012, as part of the periodic review, the Librarian issued a new ruling on the mobile handset exception which narrowed the unlocking exemption that it had previously granted. The Librarian ruled that it would exempt the “unlocking” of mobile handsets from the anti-circumvention law only if a number of conditions were met. Namely, the unlocking must be initiated by the owner of the device (not a bulk reseller) who also owns the copy of the software on the device, the device must have been purchased within a specific time window, the wireless carrier must have failed to act with a reasonable time period on a request to unlock the device and the unlocking must be requested to permit connection to another carrier’s network.
This ruling was interpreted by some to mean that unlocking mobile telephones would be illegal in most if not all circumstances, even prompting a petition to the White House to overturn the Librarian’s ruling. The White House responded to that request this week by stating that consumers should be permitted to have their devices unlocked once they have fulfilled the obligations of any existing service agreement.
While we think the Librarian’s careful decision was reasonable, the fact is that it has very little impact on AT&T customers. As we make clear on our website, if we have the unlock code or can reasonably get it from the manufacturer, AT&T currently will unlock a device for any customer whose account has been active for at least sixty days; whose account is in good standing and has no unpaid balance; and who has fulfilled his or her service agreement commitment. If the conditions are met we will unlock up to five devices per account per year. We will not unlock devices that have been reported lost or stolen.
It is a pretty straightforward policy. That means that the Librarian’s ruling will not negatively impact any of AT&T’s customers. In fact, to make the unlocking process more convenient for our customers, AT&T has developed a website that allows iPhone customers to submit their unlock requests online. Customers can also visit an AT&T store or call us for assistance with a request to unlock a device.
In addition to making it easier for our customers to unlock their AT&T-provided devices, we also enable them to use third-party unlocked devices on our network. If you bring an unlocked, compatible device to AT&T’s network (that has not been reported lost or stolen), we will be happy to offer you a SIM card that enables you to obtain service from AT&T.
We believe this policy is fully consistent with the White House statement from earlier this week – namely that if a customer has paid for his or her device and is no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation, the customer should be able to use the device on another network. We hope this clears up any confusion.