[Manic Monday] Picking The Copyright Lock

3 mins read
November 25, 2013

I spent all night yesterday to try to jailbreak an iPhone 4, given to me by my brother who lives in Japan since he has replaced it with a newer iPhone. It’s not the first time that I received a hand-me-down phone from my brother; several years ago I got an iPhone 3G which I successfully jailbreaked so I could use it with another operator SIM card. All phones in Japan are locked to the telco that sells it, so a jailbreak is necessary. Since I have jailbroken before, I thought, how hard could it be, right?

Turns out I was wrong. The previously-owned iPhone 4 cannot be jailbroken due to some issues. My options are to ask Softbank as the telco to unlock it (something that they would refuse), or use a third party paid service which claims to be able to can unlock it (and the veracity of which I doubt). So right now, I have in my hands a perfectly working and looking iPhone 4, which cannot be used to its fullest function. All because of a lock. So what was the purpose of the lock, anyway?

The presence of a lock is essentially for protection; to control access towards something. A lock does not have to be physical; it can also be software (like on the iPhone), and it also can be in the forms of regulations and treaties. It also applies to copyright – even though we have WIPO, its decisions still need to be ratified by each country, and there’s no guarantee that they would be expedited (and even if they are ratified, they may not be enforced). Borders, political will and industrial needs eventually become a “lock” in itself.

CD sales are also done by country by the major labels, even though they are international companies. Production is done locally (to minimize cost), and sales must be done domestically (company policy does not allow exports); to ensure the income of each operating country is healthy and optimal. Song copyright is also limited by borders, sometimes additional clearance is needed to sell to countries not yet mentioned in the contract. This is the frequent culprit of songs or albums being available only in some territories. These “locks” on business become hurdles for the customer, who will try to find what they want from alternate sources, most of which are illegal in the eyes of the recording companies; despite of those consumers being a good market potential.

Regulations on copyright are, by essence, protection – to safeguard one’s creation from unauhtorized use, and to guarantee that the creator can enjoy their Economical Right tied to their creation. Naturally, the spirit of such regulation is to provide enough protection so that the creator – whatever intellectual rights they may have – can create more and reach the maximum economic potential of their creation. But doesn’t having “locks” like mentioned above, create hurdles for new business to protect existing business?

I mentioned about DRM last week, which is yet another form of locking. When a fully paid for iPhone cannot be used according to what the owner wants to use it for, but is limited by the seller, was there an actual sales transaction? Or was it just ‘payment for use authorization’? And to whom does the phone really belong to? If the ‘lock’ exists to ensure the buyer only uses SIM cards from the selling telco and to prevent grey-market selling/fencing, what is the proportion between phones sold/fenced and those that are to be switched for other uses?

If what is sold – whether it be a phone or an MP3 song – needs to be protected as such to the point it inconveniences the user, could it be that the object sold actually does not have any economic value anymore? That its economic value is artificially held through various locks? It’s not wrong, but until when? As an example: Apple, as producer of the iPhone, does receive large profits from its sale; but they also make money from post-sale services like the iTunes App Store or iCloud.

Telcos outside Indonesia try to acquire or maintain customers by giving out phones like the iPhone free or cheaply, which would then be subsidised monthly in a long contract, so it is wise to ‘lock’ the user to the telco during an ongoing contract. But what happens when the contract expires? The phone should be fully owned by the user to use as they wish. And, if the telco is smart, they keep the customer by providing more interesting paid services regardless of what phone they use.

If these rights-based industries continue to be chained to regulations that have not evolved with the times, won’t these ‘locking’ approaches just hold it back? For instance: patents, which are supposed to encourage scientists to create, are used as ‘weapons of war’ between large companies, even those that do not produce anything. Because of the dependence on the economic right on reproduction, is it difficult for industries that depend on rights control?

Ario is a co-founder of Ohdio, an Indonesian music streaming service. He worked in the digital music industry in Indonesia from 2003 to 2010, and recently worked in the movie and TV industry in Vietnam. Keep up with him on Twitter at @barijoe or his blog at http://barijoe.wordpress.com.

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