Is it Legal to Jailbreak an iPhone?

Category: Gadgets

My friend has some cool apps on his iPhone that he got by 'jailbreaking' his phone. I'm a little nervous about doing that because I heard it's not legal. What's the truth?

iPhone Jailbreak

Jailbreaking Your Phone

There are two issues that come into play when discussing jailbreaking a mobile phone. The first has to do with phone being locked to a certain carrier. Millions of other cell phone owners would love to switch cellular carriers, but don't want to give up their physical phones. Many others have old cell phones they could sell, but they have to find a buyer who uses the same carrier that the phone is locked into. This tying of individual phones to specific carriers is called "jail" and for a long time it was illegal to break out of cell phone jail. But it isn't any longer, at least in the United States.

Ever since cellular carriers started locking phones to their service, ingenious hackers have been unlocking them with software "keys" that enable a phone to be used with any cellular carrier. These software keys were passed around the Internet surreptitiously, for they were illegal. For related information, see my companion article Unlocked Cell Phones.

The other common question that has to do with jailbreaking is specific to the Apple iPhone. Apple does not permit users to download apps to an iPhone unless they come from the official App Store. As you mentioned, there are lots of other nifty apps available for download, but this requires a modification of the iPhone software called jailbreaking. The JailbreakMe app will help you do that.

The U. S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) made it a crime circumvent (crack) any electronic security feature that the owner of a copyright has added to his work in order to protect it from copying, alteration, or otherwise being used in ways that he does not authorize. The software that locks a phone to a carrier is protected by copyright, so the DCMA applies to it as well as to other creative digital works. So jailbreaking an iPhone was illegal - until July of 2010.

That's when the Library of Congress announced new rules governing "fair use" of copyright-protected materials, including software like that which locks the iPhone. The DCMA itself charges the Library of Congress with reviewing the ever-evolving state of intellectual property and issuing new rules every three years, if needed, to maintain a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the rights of the public to use intellectual property for which they pay.

The 2010 rules issued by the Library of Congress officially authorize consumers' ability to:

  • Bypass phone locks to enable use of a phone with another cellular carrier
  • Bypass phone manufacturers' software locks in order to download and use applications offered by third parties. Previous, for example, iPhone owners could only download tunes from Apple's iTunes store.
  • Crack technical protections on video game software in order to investigate or correct security problems with the games they have purchased.
  • Computer users can now bypass dongles - external hardware keys that plug into computer ports to enable use of copy-protected software - if a dongle no longer works and cannot be replaced.

An occupational exemption was granted for college professors, film students, and film makers to crack DVD copy protection for the purpose of embedding clips for educational, critical, or commentary purposes. This exemption is consistent with the fair-use policy that allows reproduction of a limited portion of a copyright-protected book, for instance, in a critical review or educational setting.

Blind people are allowed to break copy protection on electronic books so that they can be used with read-aloud software and similar aids.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation deserves a great deal of credit for the enactment of these new protections of consumers' rights to modify and use the software and hardware that they buy. The EFF effectively lobbied the Library of Congress to respect the age-old principle, "you bought it, you own it."

Do you have something to say about jailbreaking a mobile phone? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Is it Legal to Jailbreak an iPhone?"

Posted by:

John Thixton
22 Aug 2010

I have an old IPhone which is locked to Telstra - I have purchased 2 software packages over the internet which claimed the ability to unlock Iphones but both failed to work. The phone wont even work as an Ipod without a sim card in it. How do I unlock it
John Thixton


Posted by:

Jesse McKay
22 Sep 2012

And today's WTF moment is: What? The Library of Congress acts as a regulatory body?

I've been scanning the article looking for an April Fools' message. To me, this is like PBS regulating television or the Postal Service developing a computer operating system for their stamp-printing software. What next? Will the Department of Agriculture arrest people for starting food fights?


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