Telus Claims Unlocking Cell Phones Constitutes Copyright Infringement

Several readers have pointed to a new CBC article on locked cellphones that includes the following comment from a Telus executive:

"In our world, we don't honour unlocked handsets," said Chris Langdon, Telus vice-president of Network Services. "Unlocking a cellphone is copyright infringement. When you buy a handset from a carrier, it has programming on the phone. It's a copyright of the manufacturer."

The issue of locked vs. unlocked cellphones is an important one, particularly in light of the recent introduction of wireless number portability (which theoretically facilitates consumer movement between providers) and the possible introduction of anti-circumvention legislation that could indeed render unlocking a cellphone a matter of copyright infringement.  At the moment, I think the Telus position is simply wrong.  Leaving aside the fact that many cellphones are available unlocked (or unlocked by the carrier after the initial contract expires), I am not aware of anyone who has argued that conventional copyright law would prohibit unlocking a cellphone and Canada does not [yet] have anti-circumvention legislation. 

In the U.S. there was concern that unlocking a cellphone would violate the DMCA by constituting a circumvention of technological protection measure.   Last fall, the U.S. Registrar of Copyright established a specific exception to permit users to unlock cellphones without fear of infringement.  The exception covers:

Computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.

That exception was vigorously promoted by the Wireless Alliance and Jennifer Granick of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, who noted that the FCC had expressed concern about locked handsets as early as 1992 and that locking was bad for competition, innovation, and the environment.  It is disturbing to see Telus promote a legal approach that would push Canada even further behind our partners on the wireless front while adopting copyright law reforms that even the U.S. has found to be overly draconian.  Given Minister of Industry Bernier's emphasis on telecommunications deregulation, the Telus comments illustrate the connection between his activities on the telco side and the prospect of copyright reform that undermines marketplace innovation in the telecom sector.


  1. Who’s copyright
    Since when is Telus responsible for enforcing a manufactures copyright?

  2. Jennifer Granick says:

    To get the phone unlocking exemption, we had to prove that unlocking not only is not infringement, but doesn\’t promote infringement. The U.S. Copyright Office, by virtue of granting the exemption, has definitively decided that unlocking is not infringing activity.

    Copyright law does not prevent someone from using software, which is what unlocking allows. Using is not an exclusive right of the CR owner. All unlocking does is enable the user to insert a new SIM card in his phone and operate the phone on any given cellular network. For CDMA phones, the user reprograms his phone to instruct it to connect to a new cellular network. Neither of these activities implicates the
    exclusive rights of the copyright owner. Additionally, reprogramming your phone is non-infringing activity permitted under 17 U.S.C. 117. The filings in the anti-circumvention proceedings, and some of the testimony, go more in depth on this issue. In short, Telus is dead wrong under U.S. law.

  3. Copyright “owner”
    I figure it would be up to the manufacturer of the phone to decide if it is ‘infringing on their copyright’. Telus currently goes to each handset manufacturer and demands that locks are in place. These locking mechanisms are standard fare, that which is owned by the manufacturer of the handset—not the company that demands this arbitrary restriction be placed on the consumers’ device.

  4. IANAL obviously, but from the sound of things, Telus is just being a bully to try to scare people out of doing perfectly legal things in order to achieve as much vendor lock-in as possible. Shame on you, Telus.

  5. “Unlocking a cellphone is copyright infringement. When you buy a handset from a carrier, it has programming on the phone. It’s a copyright of the manufacturer.”

    And when it’s a Linux-based phone, then what’s the excuse? Or do they think that their above the GPL now?

  6. What copyright?
    I don’t remember Telus (or Fido or BCE) ever give it’s customers a copyright notice for the S/W when one *buys* a phone. Come to think of it, the user documentation for my phones does not include any copyright notice for the S/W either.

    Fortunately for Telus, one can only switch to Bell as service provider in Canada using the same phone and Bell is probably even more difficult to deal with than Telus!

    If there are no explicit copyright notices, what is the copyright that is applied?

  7. Tired of This
    I’m really getting sick and tired of the sad state of affairs in the telecommunications industry in Canada. Rogers throttles your Internet, false advertising, they all charge a ridiculous amount for mobile internet, lock down phones, they claim nonsense like this and then they stuff money in the pockets of our lawmakers.

    There’s no competition and it’s starting to show. Rogers, Telus and Bell – I have some choice words for these three that I’m too polite to say here.

  8. R. Bassett Jr. says:

    So, if we think further along these lines we’ll run into situations where people will be fined or arrested for doing begign things like installing a program on their computer that didn’t actually come from the OEM provider. Perhaps we should all be fined for using non-GM approved snow tires on our cars, even though brands like Yokahama offer greater safety features, designs, etc.

    The comments quoted above are another classic example of an “idiot in power” shooting his mouth off before taking a moment to consider the greater implications of his point of view. Indeed, money and the ability to bullshit seem to be the only prerequisites of becoming an “idiot in power”.

  9. Another barrier
    What if a “subscriber” needs an alternate device?
    One that Telus, or Rogers, doesn’t carry?
    That device needs to be unlocked so it can be activated on their network. I’m sure they’ll sell you the service on an alternate product (without any support, of course).
    In the era of the “CrackBerry”, there are very few devices that support TTS (Text To Speech) technologies, screen magnification software, or even voice rec.
    Yes, the technology does exist, but it is widely unsupported in Canada. It is also “third party software” that is not supported.
    RIM does not support Adaptive Computer Technologies yet, so, the carriers are limited in their accessibility.
    Due to this, people who need a device that can handle TTS have to purchase it from the UK or other sources, unlocked, of course.
    People with disabilities are no longer relegated to working in the mail room. They are managers, directors, technicians and anything else.
    Locking down mobile devices will place yet another barrier in front of them.

  10. It’s laughable that Telus could come up with the copyright infringement stance. I fail to understand how a cell phone could infringe on any copyright simply to removing a subsidy lock that Telus has manually put in. They simply just refuse to accept any non Telus phones to be activate on their network for the sole reason that they want to lock you in their 3 year contracts and pretty much forever until you decide you want to go with another carrier, and then go for another 3 more years with that carrier.

    That is the main reason why I refuse to use Telus and Bell phone and buy my own unlocked GSM phone from Asia and use it on Rogers. I will not be held hostage by a carrier, although I am quite stuck with the only GSM carrier in Canada. I only wished the CRTC would wake up and relax the foreign ownership rules. It is their incompetency that leads us to pay these ridiculous System Access Fees plus paying both provincial and federal tax on an obvious profit grab.

  11. Unlocking is a feature of the phone
    The ability to remove SIM locks from a GSM phone is actually a feature that is built into the software, it’s just hidden. It is by no means ‘hacking’, and is not copyright infringement.

  12. GSM phones
    In the uk, it was ruled that once you had purchased a phone the phone was owned by the customer not the provider (as canadian companies still claim the phone is their property even after you purchase it) and therefore the customer should be able to use the device where ever and however they want to, which includes on other carriers. Unlocking started as a backstreet thing there as well, until the ruling, and now every carrier offers unlocked phones and its caused services and rates to become more competative. I personally bought my phone brand new off ebay in the uk, and used it on 2 uk networks and now on Rogers here in canada.

  13. Whatever…
    I just did an IMEI unlock on my Rogers cel for 35CDN from a Vancouver company. I can now travel anywhere in the world, and just insert a pre-paid SIM. CDMA is a dinosaur.

    THIS is free enterprise and a global economy. Amazing how when it benefits companies, it ‘Globalization’, but when it benefits consumers, it copyright infringement.

    I call it laughable and criminal.

    I will never go on a contract again for a cel. If you can’t afford to buy a replacement phone, you can’t afford cel service. Period. If your home phone died, would you sign a contract to get a new one? I think not.

    Don’t get hosed by your provider.

  14. Big Business
    Like so many other people I am fed-up with the big three mobile service providers(Telus, Bell, Rogers) time and time again herding Canadian consumers into restrictive and prohibitive service contracts and providing hardware of the same.

    As stated earlier it’s about time the CRTC lighten restrictions and open the doors for competition. Only then will a free market situation develop for this industry in Canada.

  15. Common….
    First off, CDMA phones can\’t be unlocked, u would have to load the ESN of the phone in to the carrier\’s ESN bank, which in turn creates more hassle. GSM is diff, now ur looking at apples and oranges, CDMA is STRONGER, FASTER, alot more secure and depenable.

  16. unlock cell phone says:

    unlock cell phone
    Well Samsung mobile phone always introduce very extra and best features and functions containing cell phone for their customers which like every time new thing in their cell phone.

  17. Phone choices and crazy profits for the cell carriers
    Offer a good service for a fair price and they will come… There would be no need to lock people into contracts and phones. The Telus guy must be interpreting the concept of copyright the same way they interpret our ‘contract.’ I can’t tell you the number of times Telus quoted some idiotic clause from the ‘contract’ that LOCKED me to them but they were under no obligation to live-up-to the agreement and provide the service I was sold.

    The locks are there to limit the phone features to the carriers preferences and ability to charge for services. When you buy a phone, don’t you also pay for the software and the ability to use it. Now, if Telus and others were paying licensing fees to the phone providers, that might be different but I really don’t think that’s the case. I’m pretty sure $699 for an iPhone (no contract) will cover the software too.

    Heaven forbid I should be able to plug in a USB cable and SAVE my call list or phone book on anything but a smart phone. Nope. This would make the simple phone too useful for the customer and not generate any monthly revenue for the carriers.

  18. BILL BRYTAN says:

    Telus Greed Backfires
    It was really interesting to find this article about Telus, because their own greed has backfired on them and I get unlimited Canada/US service from them for $8.62CAD per month. If anyone is interested in the lengthy details, please visit my blog which deals with the subject thoroughly: