Skip to Main Content

Unlocking your Cellphone: Property Rights in the Digital Age

If there’s one gadget nearly impossible to live without in the 21st century, it’s the cellphone. Most of us keep one on us at all times, and a recent survey showed that for a majority of 18-34 year olds giving up their smartphone would be the hardest possession to live without. But is it really YOUR smartphone? A recent decision by the Librarian of Congress, under authority granted by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), made it illegal to unlock your smartphone, aka use the hardware and software in ways not approved by cellphone carriers. Critics contend  this undermines traditional notions of property rights, namely the right to use your property as you see fit, and over 100,000 people have signed a petition on the White House website advocating overturning this policy. Meanwhile, supporters maintain that the restriction is necessary to combat digital piracy, and many major industry groups argue that it is an appropriate legal guarantee of their own property rights. Property rights have always been a tricky subject, but as property increasingly becomes virtual it is getting even harder to define “what’s mine and what’s yours.”  In this week’s eLesson we’ll explore property rights in the context of smartphones, and evaluate where we should be setting the line.

News Resources

A Right to Unlock Cellphones Fades Away Date: 1/25/13 Source: NY Times FCC To Investigate Cell Phone Unlocking Ban Date: 2/28/13 Source: TechCrunch


The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013 (So Far): It Is Now a Crime to Unlock Your Smartphone Date: 1/27/13 Source: The Atlantic What’s really happening with unlocked devices Date: 1/26/13 Source: CTIA Blog


  1. How would you define the right to property?
  2. The Librarian of Congress is tasked with issuing exemptions to certain aspects of the DMCA– exemptions that can determine whether an action is or is not treated as a crime. In what circumstances is it appropriate for appointed officials to be tasked with making law?
  3. The DMCA makes it illegal to create ‘anti-circumvention’ technology, for instance to create software to make copies of a DVD. Do you think this is an appropriate restriction, or do you think it unfairly deters innovation?
  4. Recent court decisions have stated that law enforcement does not need a warrant to seize information from your phone (i.e. text messages). Is this an infringement of right to privacy on your device, or is it permissible under the Fourth Amendment?
  5. What other implications for property rights can you think of when it comes to cellphones and technology?