EDITORIAL: Free the cellphone

Copyright extremism shackles innovation and competition

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The free market occasionally annoys, but the government often makes matters worse. Consider the Americans who purchase a cellphone from the big providers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and then regret it. Though most modern cellphones are capable of working on the networks of other providers, companies often lock up the devices so that a consumer can’t make the switch to a competitor.

Americans being Americans, enterprising customers often figure out how to bypass these artificial constraints through a process called “jailbreaking.” Jailbreaking software gives owners the power to install third-party apps, custom ringtones and other applications. To the delight of the phone companies, a recent decision by the Librarian of Congress, as empowered by Congress, cracked down on freedom by declaring jailbreaking a serious crime.

Congress in 1998 passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives the librarian power to decide whether certain acts, such as unlocking a phone, should be considered a copyright violation. The recent ruling means consumers who free their phone without their carrier’s consent can be fined up to $2,500. Willful violators could be sent to prison for five years and required to pay a $500,000 fine.

It’s not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last time, that corporate interests have used government as a means of limiting competition and padding their bottom lines. Big content industries have been lobbying Congress to restrict innovation and technology for generations. In the late 1970s, for instance, Hollywood went all the way to the Supreme Court in an effort to hobble the VCR, which was then the way we recorded the television programs and movies we wanted to watch later.

Passed by a Republican Congress in 1998 and signed into law by President Clinton, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a classic example of bipartisanship that favors corporate money interests at the expense of inventors, competition, technology and innovation. Movie studios, the music industry and technology conglomerates were chief advocates of the law, and Congress gave them what they wanted — the legal authority to create closed technology platforms, often forcing taxpayers to pay for enforcement of their copyrights.

Lawyers for these industries have used the law to limit consumer choices and stifle competition. For example, in 2001, a Russian programmer was arrested, accused of writing software for his employer that converted Adobe e-books to PDF. Hollywood sued and shut down a company that made software that enabled consumers to make backup copies of their own DVDs. Homeland Security officers have arrested students who modified their Xbox game consoles, and the 1998 copyright law has been used to block aftermarket competition for garage-door openers and laser-printer cartridges.

We can’t count on reform soon. Hollywood’s grip on Congress remains as tight as ever. Recently, a conservative staff member who had the temerity to write a memo advocating reasonable changes to our copyright statutes was summarily fired.

Whether it’s jailbreaking an iPhone or making copies of purchased DVDs, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has unbalanced the copyright system by according copyright holders complete control over all possible uses of a work — a proposition clearly counter to the intent of the Constitution, which created copyright as a “limited” right.

On Monday, the White House issued a statement agreeing the librarian’s decision should be overturned. That should help advance the cause of unshackling innovation and technology from this misconstrued and misguided act.

The Washington Times

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