Centre for Internet & Society

In this blog post Puneeth Nagaraj looks at the recent controversy over the expiration of the exemption granted by the US Library of Congress for unlocking phones and compares the Indian position as per a 2005 Andhra Pradesh High Court judgment.

Being a gadget freak in India is difficult. Smartphone companies take months to release their latest product in India (if they do at all) and even when they are released, they are overpriced. For instance, Google's offering in the entry level tablet market, the Nexus 7 was released in India only in April — a full 9 months after its US debut. It is priced at Rs. 16,000 (USD 300) while it costs only USD 200 in the US. Google’s other device Nexus 10 is yet to make its way to the Indian market.

For long, the Indian gadget freak has relied on friends or family travelling abroad to get his/her hands on the latest gadgets on offer. It was not uncommon in the days following the release of the earlier models of the iPhone for eager owners of foreign bought phones to unlock or “jailbreak” their phones so they could use it in India. But the practice of “jailbreaking” or “android rooting” (hereinafter referred to as unlocking [*] for convenience) phones serves a wider purpose. Unlocking smart phones allows users to overcome limitations imposed by hardware manufacturers or carriers. As a result, users can freely switch service providers. While some manufacturers (like Apple) strongly oppose unlocking- even threatening to cancel warranty in case of unlocked devices, others do not mind it and some (like Google and HTC) even encourage it.

US Library of Congress Exemption

The whole controversy surrounding the legality of unlocking phones started in the US last October when the Library of Congress decided against renewing a copyright exemption it granted in 2006. As a result, the exemption expired in January and caused a furore in the US. The DMCA (1201 of the USC), prohibits circumvention of technological measures that protect access to a copyrighted work. This sort of protection is necessary to protecting copyrighted works in a digital format. But the US Congress was informed of the restrictive effects of such a prohibition. Consequently, the Congress created statutory exemptions to allow circumvention of these technological measures and empowered the Library of Congress to grant or renew such exemptions.

Despite the exemption granted by the Library of Congress in 2006, many phone companies successfully sued hardware providers who enabled unlocking of phones. With the expiration of the exemption in January, the status of phone unlocking hangs in a balance. This is especially troublesome as it is a widespread and in some cases essential practice. Both the White House and the FCC have been petitioned to legalise unlocking. In response, four different proposals have been tabled in the US Congress just for this purpose (here is an analysis of each of the bills).

At the moment, the unlocking of phones to run unapproved software is still legal as a result of an exemption granted in 2012. But this is also up for review in 2015. There is a need for a more comprehensive solution to address both these issues and the proposals before the Congress fall short.

Indian Position

Syed Asifuddin v. State of Andhra Pradesh
A case based on the unlocking of phones came before the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2005. Certain Employees of TATA Indicom had facilitated the migration of customers contracted to Reliance for 3 years by unlocking their phones. Representatives of Reliance filed a criminal complaint against them alleging criminal breach of trust (IPC Section 409), cheating (IPC Section 420) and criminal conspiracy (IPC Section 120). They also claimed the violation of copyright and sought punishment under Section 63 of the Copyright Act, as well as Section 65 of the IT Act.

The court dismissed the criminal petitions under the IPC, IT Act and the Copyright Act. However, on the question of copyright infringement, the court held that if a person alters computer programme of another person or another computer company, the same would be infringement of copyright. The court also found that a cell phone would fall under the definition of a computer under Section 2(1) (i) of the Information Technology Act. Consequently, the court held that Section 65 of the IT Act, which deals with the tampering of computer source documents, would be applicable to the present case. The decision itself may not have precedent value on the issue as the High Court was merely ruling on the admissibility of the case on the basis of the above provisions and sent the matter back to the trial court to decide based on the evidence available. But the opinion of the court on copyright infringement and the IT Act is troubling.


First, the court used the rather expansive definition of computers in the IT Act (Section 2(1) (i)) to include mobile phones as well. The definition under the above section reads as under:

any electronic, magnetic, optical or other high speed data processing device or system which performs logical, arithmetic and memory functions by manipulations of electronic, magnetic or optical impulses, and includes all input, output, processing, storage, computer software or communication facilities which are connected or related to the computer in a computer system or computer network.

It would not be unreasonable to see smartphones as being capable of “high speed data processing” or “input, output, processing, storage”. However, the phones in question here were basic Samsung N191 and LG-2030 phones (images of these phones can be seen here and here). Even if it might be conceivable that such basic phones can be put in the same bracket as desktop computers or laptops, the court had to examine the definition in the context of the substantial provision. In this case, the substantial provisions were Section 65 and 66 of the IT Act, which deal with tampering source documents and hacking computer systems respectively. So, by equating a basic mobile phone to a computer, the court equated unlocking a mobile phone to hacking a computer. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Section 66 prescribes criminal punishment to hackers.

Second, the court also erred in its ruling on the Copyright Act. Once again, the court held a basic phone to mean a computer under Section 2(ffb). More worryingly, it was held that the Electronic Serial Number (ESN), a unique code given to every phone would qualify as a computer program under Section 2(ffc) and is thus subject to copyright under Section 14 of the Copyright Act. In doing so, the court has set the bar extremely low for copyrightablity of computer programs. Needless to say this judgment needs to be reconsidered if not watered down. While there is recognition that bootloader protection programmes barely meet the standard for copyright, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has granted protection to a randomly generated 11 digit number.

Fortunately, the case of Syed Asifuddin was not a final ruling on the issue as the court sent the matter back to the trial court. However, there is every chance that a future court can rely on the erroneous reasoning in this case. Further, fair use arguments can always be mad in the favour of an individual consumer who wishes to migrate to another service provider.

The larger problem is that by giving an expansive meaning to the provisions in the Copyright Act and the IT Act, it can be used to target  businesses that facilitate unlocking devices that can be targeted (like in the US). Unlike in the US, phone unlocking is not a business in India and is usually done by small business owners who sell and repair mobiles. The consequences of suing such businesses can be worse in India as they can end up in jail for an act that falls in an undefined area of the law. It seems that the situation may be resolved in the US in the near future in favour of the consumer — although the issue of the business of unlocking phones must be resolved finally. The position in India is worrisome especially due to the threat of criminal persecution.

[*]. The term jailbreaking is used specifically in the case of iOS devices and android rooting, as the name suggests is used in the case of android devices. Technically speaking, they are very different given that most android devices do not restrict access to their “bootloaders”. Acknowledging the difference between the two, the discussion here is focused on overriding technological measures meant to protect underlying copyrighted works.

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