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Why The Library Of Congress Has A Lock On Your Phone

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What it means to own something in the digital age is being re-negotiated.

Few of us own the music we listen to or the movies we watch in exactly the same way we did a decade ago. And today if you buy a smartphone from a cellphone company, what you can legally do with it — how and where you can use it — may be proscribed even if that phone is fully bought and paid for.

I keep a lot of music on my phone. I have the Stones, Janis Joplin and OK Go.

Over the past couple of years, I've bought all these albums and more from iTunes. But Max Dawson, who studies media and technology at Northwestern University, says I don't really own this music — not the way I once did.

"The concept of media ownership has changed dramatically within only the last five or 10 years," he says.

Dawson is a media dinosaur. "I've got a couple thousand vinyl records. I've still got some CDs sticking around; I've got a bunch of cassette tapes," he says.

If he gets tired of an album, he can sell it — or give it away.

If I get tired of Janis, I can delete her from my phone. But I can't walk down to the local record store and sell anything for cash. I can't even give it away.

"If I send it to a friend and then delete it off of my computer, that is nominally illegal," says Sherwin Siy, an attorney at Public Knowledge. He says to understand why this is, you have to go back 15 years to the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

"In 1998, Congress passes this law that among a whole host of other things it makes it illegal to break digital locks that protect access to copyrighted works," Siy says.

Those locks prevent me from selling my iTunes collection. They also lock down the movies I buy on Amazon, digital books and all kinds of software I download and purchase. It wouldn't be illegal for me to sell this stuff or give it away, but I can't do that without first breaking those digital locks.

"It's as if it's illegal to pick locks, even if it's the lock to my own house," Siy says.

And he says this law and these kinds of locks are now being used to limit what consumers can do with physical stuff, too.

"Part of it is the fact that software is embedded in so many different things," Siy says. "And so, we don't think of a phone as being a copyrighted thing; we don't think of our car as being a copyrighted thing. But phones and cars now both contain copyrighted software."

It's up to the Library of Congress to decide whether these kinds of copyrights are enforceable. Last year, wireless carriers spent quite a bit of time and money convincing officials at the Library of Congress to change the rules that govern exactly what consumers can do with the software on their cellphones.

Until January, if you owned a phone and your contract expired, you could legally unlock that phone, tweak its software and use it on a different cellphone network.

But now, Siy says, "You'd have to get permission in order to do it."

In many cases it's going to be up to your phone company to tell you what you can and can't do with that phone — even after it's bought and paid for.

"I would say that unlocking your phone should still be legal, but my say-so isn't going to prevent somebody from suing you over it," Siy says.

The same kind of digital locks are now used by carmakers to force consumers into getting repairs at authorized dealers. Even garage door openers and printer cartridges have been locked down.

And, Siy argues, that forces prices up.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Steve Henn
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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