People use iPhone 5s during the opening of a new Apple store.
People use iPhone 5s during the opening of a new Apple store. - 
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If consumers want to “unlock” their cell phones in order to take their phone from one cellular network to another, they now need to ask the permission of their carrier. Starting January 26th, unlocking phones without the provider’s OK is against the law.

But perhaps the most surprising part of these changes is that they came from the Library of Congress, a government department better known for its archives than its regulatory abilities.

But in addition to cataloging gems from the country’s past -- everything from old musical performances to little-remembered presidential speeches -- the Library of Congress also oversees copyrights.

“In the mid-19th century when the Library of Congress really started to take off, the big concern within U.S. copyright law was books,” explains Andy Sellars, a staff attorney with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “Part of the requirements for registration of copyright included submission of a copy of your book to the Library of Congress.”

However, now digital copyrights also fall under the library’s purvi­­ew, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal to break digital locks on copyrighted things like music, movies, and software. Passed in 1998, the law was largely supported by the entertainment industry in an attempt to stop people from bootlegging their work.

“What it ended up being used for, in addition, was to stop competition and kill after-markets in electronics,” says Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which argued against the rule changes relating to cell phones.

A popular reason for people to unlock cell phones is to sell their old devices when they get a new ones, according to Stoltz. Therefore, this new change could have a big impact on the resale market.

“It is very strange for the Librarian of Congress to be setting industrial policy,” Stoltz adds. “It’s a really strange and badly written law that’s has the affect of giving them the power over a commercial market, where really the market should decide.”

The Library of Congress reviews which technology could be impacted or exempted from the Digital Millenium Copyright Act’s protections every three of years. So those looking to be able to unlock their cell phones without first asking permission will have the chance to lobby the Library in late 2014.

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Follow Tracey Samuelson at @tdsamuelson