On Call: Go ahead and jailbreak, it's legal now

Thanks to a recent U.S. Copyright Office decision, iPhone owners can legally jailbreak their iPhones. CNET's cell phone reviews editor welcomes the news.

Set me free! Josh Miller/CNET

On Monday, the U.S Copyright Office ruled that jailbreaking an iPhone or other mobile device will no longer violate federal copyright law. Some iPhone owners no doubt cheered the news, and I join them in supporting the decision.

"Jailbreak" entered the wireless lexicon soon after the iPhone first went on sale in 2007. Though some CNET readers have asked me if jailbreaking is the same as unlocking a handset, it's actually a different process. When you jailbreak an iPhone, you remove the Apple-imposed restrictions that prevent you from loading applications not sold through the iTunes App Store. Unlocking, on the other hand, only removes the restrictions that tie your iPhone to AT&T. So on the same phone, you can perform just one action or, if you prefer, both.

I welcome the decision because I've always advocated for giving customers as many choices as possible. Yes, I understand that jailbreaking carriers some risks--you void your warranty and you could wind up with a bricked phone if you're not careful--but those risks, rather than breaking the law, should be the only consequences that consumers should face.

Not surprisingly, Apple is against the move. A company rep told CultofMac yesterday that its "goal has always been to insure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone" and that it knows "that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience." The company also warned of malware in unapproved apps, though that doesn't explain its resistance to Google Voice .

To its credit, the Apple isn't entirely off-base, so I'll save you any "Big Brother" references. After all, the company has always been about offering a consistent and tightly-controlled user experience on its products, so it's no surprise that the iPhone and iTunes App store should be any different. What's more, many consumers buy the iPhone because of that experience.

Yet, that doesn't mean that Apple's way of doing things is always the best way. In the Android Market, for example, Google exerts very few controls over the app approval process. Though some might argue that no real gatekeeper degrades the overall quality of apps, customers have more control over how they use their device. Perhaps jailbreaking offers users something in between the two extremes.

Before you run out and jailbreak, however, there are a couple points to remember. First off, if you free your phone, you'll still violate Apple's Apple iPhone Software License Agreement (PDF). Though Apple could legally go after you for that reason alone, as my colleagues Erica Ogg and Declan McCullagh wrote in their excellent FAQ , that it is unlikely to happen. Also, you'll need to jailbreak your phone again each time Apple issues a iOS update.

I've never tried jailbreaking myself, and because of the complexities involved I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. But it you feel up to the task, you'll get more freedom with your phone. And now that freedom isn't illegal.

 

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