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Science & Technology

Digital Locks Limit Access To Copyrighted Works


What it means to own something in the digital age is being re-negotiated. Few of us own the music we listen or the movies we watch, in the same way as we did a decade ago. And today, if you get a smartphone from a cell phone company what you can legally do with it - how and where you can use it - may be restricted, even if that phone is fully bought and paid for.

NPR's Steve Henn explains. And we'll also find out a little bit about his music taste.


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


OK GO: (Singing) When they finally come to destroy the earth...

HENN: 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.

MAX DAWSON: The entire concept of media ownership has changed dramatically within only the last five or 10 years.

HENN: Dawson is a media dinosaur.

DAWSON: I've got a couple thousand vinyl records. I still got some CD's sticking around. I've got a bunch of cassette tapes.

HENN: If he gets tired of an album he can sell it, or give it away. Me, 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.

SHERWIN SIY, ATTORNEY, PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE: If I send it to a friend and then delete it from my computer - that is nominally illegal.

HENN: Sherwin Siy is 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.

KNOWLEDGE: In 1998, Congress passes this law that among a whole host of other things, it makes it illegal for somebody to break digital locks that protect access to copyrighted works.

HENN: 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 or purchase.

Now it wouldn't be illegal for me to sell this stuff or give it away, but I can't do that without first breaking these digital locks.

KNOWLEDGE: It's as if it's illegal for me to pick locks - even if it is the lock to my own house.

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

KNOWLEDGE: Oh yeah, I mean, part of it is the fact that software is embedded in so many things. And so, you know, we don't think of a phone as being a copyrighted thing - we don't think of a car as a copyrighted thing. But phones and cars now both contain copyrighted software.

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

Until this 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 cell-phone network. But now...

KNOWLEDGE: You'd have to get permission in order to do it.

HENN: In many cases, now it's going to be up to your phone company to tell you what you can and can't do with your phone - even after it's bought and paid for.

KNOWLEDGE: I would say that unlocking your phone should still be legal, but my say so isn't going to prevent someone from suing you over it.

HENN: The same kinds 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.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.