On Oct. 19, the U.S. Copyright Office submitted new exemptions to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) regarding the repair of digital devices. Recyclers are not only able to unlock cellular devices but also all wireless devices for the purposes of repair or resell.

While the DMCA prohibits circumventing technological protection measures that control access to copyrighted works, exemptions can be granted to ensure non-infringing uses of copyrighted works are not necessarily inhibited.

Every three years, the Copyright Office holds a rulemaking to identify exemptions for various classes of works. ISRI typically files an exemption request when necessary to ensure members can unlock cellular devices they receive to recycle and/or resell. “Recyclers need to be able to unlock the devices to switch cellular carriers,” says Billy Johnson, ISRI’s chief lobbyist. “They typically get the devices in bulk, so they’ll get 100 Verizon phones, and the customer base may need the phones put on a different U.S. network, or an international GSN network.”

The exemption is important for companies like HOBI International that supply repair and refurbishment services and often receive U.S. devices to resell abroad. “Without the ability to unlock [the devices] we wouldn’t be able to sell them,” says Craig Boswell, co-founder and president of HOBI International. “If a device is tied to a U.S. domestic carrier and we can’t unlock it, then that limits its re-salability. If your Verizon phone is blocked to just that network, that limits the customer base to people who only want Verizon. If I can’t unlock it, I can’t sell it to other U.S. carriers or to international carriers.”

This year, ISRI petitioned to change the existing exemption “to (1) add a new device category for ‘Laptop computers (including Chromebooks),’ or (2) in the alternative, remove the enumerated device categories from the current exemption and permit unlocking of all wireless devices.” For the latter request, the association provided new language to replace the current exemption.

In its petition, ISRI demonstrated that in the three years since the last rulemaking, recyclers have started getting laptops to recycle and/or resell with wireless connectivity. Some of those devices were locked to a particular wireless carrier just like the devices covered by the current exemption.

ISRI also discussed the importance of expanding the exemption due to the introduction of 5G networks and devices. New 5G laptops mean recyclers will start receiving more locked 4G-enabled laptops as people bring in their old models for recycling when trading in for new versions. Devices that are 5G capable are coming into the market and 5G cellular modules are being incorporated into a variety of devices. ISRI argued that the same firmware and Trusted Platform Module (TPMs) are implicating in devices sharing the modem because the same modem is used across device categories. For that reason, consumers would have the same difficulties if they can’t unlock devices that share the modem.

The Register not only granted ISRI’s request to include laptops in the exemption but also to encompass all wireless devices. Concerning computers, the Register notes, “Computer programs that enable wireless devices to connect to a wireless telecommunications network, when circumvention is undertaken solely in order to connect to a wireless telecommunications network and such connection is authorized by the operator of such network.”

The Register used the same argument for unlocking all wireless devices. “If consumers can unlock any locked wireless device, unlocking ‘will expand the availability of the copyrighted software within them by enabling them to continue their functional use’ instead of being discarded or sold for scrap.”

Boswell is excited about the exemption, particularly its importance in the wake of the deployment of 5G. “We anticipate that more and more devices will depend on their connectivity through the wireless networking,” he says. “And now the exemption will apply to laptops, TVs, or even a car, so your car might have a 5G connection to AT&T. So, if you wanted to move it to Verizon, it would also apply to a car.”

Expanding the exemption beyond phones and tablets is a big win for recyclers, Johnson says. “There are a lot of devices that may not be connected to a network but are still locked and therefore difficult to repair or resell,” Johnson explains. “This [exemption] will affect cars and other appliances. Everything in the car from the door handles and the mirrors to the engine and transmission is all digitally locked to the car.” While recyclers aren’t getting these types of cars in bulk right now, they may not be far down the road. “It sets a precedent for unlocking devices, equipment, and other parts, so all these products will have a new life,” Johnson says.

Photo courtesy of Florian Krumm on Unsplash.

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.