Feds say mobile-phone jailbreaking is OK

Jailbreaking your iPhone or other mobile devices will no longer violate federal copyright law, thanks to a new ruling that updates the 1998 DMCA.

Jailbreaking your iPhone or other mobile device will no longer violate federal copyright law, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled Monday.

The decision, part of a process that takes place every three years, said that bypassing a manufacturer's protection mechanisms to allow "handsets to execute software applications" is permissible.

The Copyright Office also allowed bypassing the anticopying technology used in DVDs, but only for "documentary filmmaking," noncommercial videos, and educational uses--a ruling that stopped short of allowing Americans to legally make a backup copy for their own use, in case the original DVD gets damaged. It also doesn't apply to making backup copies of video game discs or Blu-ray discs.

Apple, the maker of the iPhone, had objected to the exemption for jailbreaking phones. A letter that the company sent to the Copyright Office argued that allowing jailbreaking would result "in copyright infringement, potential damage to the device and other potential harmful physical effects, adverse effects on the functioning of the device, and breach of contract."

Apple's support department already receives "literally millions of reported instances of problems flowing from jailbroken phones," the company said, and legitimizing the practice of jailbreaking would result in more malware being delivered outside of the App Store, other security problems, and even physical damage to the iPhone.

Monday's announcement certainly counts as a political victory for jailbreaking enthusiasts and critics of the anti-circumvention portions the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but it may not have much of a practical effect.

Apple has never sued any of its customers on grounds that their jailbreaking violates the DMCA, even though a February 2009 estimate suggested that over 400,000 U.S. iPhone owners have done so. Nor has it filed any breach-of-contract lawsuits claiming that the software license agreement was violated.

Section 2(c) of the Apple iPhone Software License Agreement (PDF) bans any attempt to "modify" the iPhone software or to reverse-engineer it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the San Francisco-based civil liberties group, had requested that the Copyright Office expand the number of exceptions in the DMCA, which has been a focus of controversy among programmers, hackers, and security researchers for over a decade. The DMCA broadly restricts, but does not flatly ban, bypassing copy protection technology.

"The Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress have taken three important steps today to mitigate some of the harms caused by the DMCA," Jennifer Granick, EFF's civil-liberties director, said in a statement Monday. "We are thrilled to have helped free jailbreakers, unlockers, and vidders from this law's overbroad reach."

Last updated at 11:30 a.m. PT with additional background and reaction.

 

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