For the consumer, the answer is yes. The law on this topic is called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This act was originally created to prevent people from using technology to get around copyright – protected barriers that have been placed in the software of electronic devices such as cell phones. This act, originally, made it illegal to unlock your cell phone so that it could be used with a carrier other than the carrier for whom the device was originally produced. In November of 2006, however, an exemption was passed that allows consumers to unlock their cell phones “for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.” This exemption makes it legal for a consumer to unlock their cell phone (or purchase an unlocked cell phone) as long as the only reason they are doing it is to use the phone with a different carrier. This was great news for consumers, but the exemption was only approved for three years. In November of this year (2009), the Librarian of Congress will have to issue a re-ruling of this act.
Naturally, several major companies are strongly apposed to allowing people to have their cell phones re-programmed, but there are several companies who are pushing to further the allowances approved in the current exemption. MetroPCS, Pocket Communications, and The Wireless Alliance have all submitted proposals very similar to the original exemption, but they have all requested that the original wording be changed to allow the unlocking of cell phones “regardless of commercial motive,” which would basically make it legal to unlock cell phones for any reason. This would greatly benefit the companies who purchase large amounts of phones and unlock them with the sole purpose of selling them for a profit.
Companies like CTIA, Apple, and Virgin Mobile are strongly apposed to any modification to cellular products. These companies are arguing that unlocking a cell phone breaks more than just the “lock” that prevents a phone from being used with a different carrier, and it damages other software that can cause the phone to function improperly. They argue that altering a phone, which, in turn, will cause it to work improperly, creates a false image of the company whose logo is printed on the device.
Until November, as a consumer, you are not violating any laws by having your cell phone unlocked if you do it so that you can use your phone with a different carrier. Purchasing an unlocked cell phone is also completely safe as you, the consumer, did not actually unlock the phone. It seems unlikely that the Librarian of Congress would remove the exemption allowing consumers to have their phones unlocked. What remains to be seen is whether or not they will vote to allow the unlocking of cell phones “regardless of commercial motive.”