Remember the old days when we could buy something and then it was ours forever? Thanks to the Internet that time has passed.
The first-sale doctrine, legally recognized since 1908, has allowed us to redistribute copyrighted products for decades. Mix tapes, libraries, used video games, gifting Homeward Bound on VHS; none of these things would be legal without this doctrine. First-sale gives the buyer of copyrighted material the legal right to resale, lend, or gift said purchase. Essentially, you own what you paid for and can now do whatever you want with it.
A curious thing happened when computers and the Internet came along, however. Companies claimed consumers did not own the software that they bought. Thus resale and lending of the product was illegal. What about first-sale? We bought it, we can sell it. This is where those lovely software license agreements come in that no one reads. They state that the consumer merely leases the software. Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, Call of Duty, Apple OS X and the operating system on cell phones are not owned by the consumer, only borrowed.
This brings us to the iPhone. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has been in effect since 1998 and has been revised every few years since. As of January this year, the DMCA has been updated to make it illegal to unlock a smartphone without permission from one’s service provider. To unlock a smartphone means to enable it to work with any other cellphone service. Does that sound unfair? Well, technically it is not. Unlocking is a software thing and consumers do not own their phone’s software.
In reality, this change to the DMCA is not a terrible inconvenience. Cellular service providers will likely give permission for consumers to unlock their phones once their contracts have run out. But this does mean that corporations have another level of control over their customers. Scary.
All is not lost though. The DMCA still says jailbreaking, allowing a smartphone to run custom software, is perfectly legal. If the next software license agreement you read seems too oppressive, feel free to jailbreak that phone and frolic through the digital fields of independent software. Just remember, if you have an iPhone this voids your warranty with Apple.