Feds uphold jailbreaking laws on DVDs, game consoles, tablets

While smartphone jailbreaking remains legal, new rules published by the U.S. Copyright Office dictate that cracking DVDs, gaming consoles, and tablets is against the law.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read

The U.S. Copyright Office published its new set of rules on whether people can jailbreak smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles today; it also outlined the guidelines on DVD copying.

Overwhelmingly, its conclusions were that besides smartphones, all of the above remain illegal.

Every three years the Copyright Office takes requests from digital rights proponents and opponents to re-examine the laws under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that dictate whether people can unlock or jailbreak their varied devices. Today, in a lengthy document (PDF), the government listed all of the changes it made.

The key developments are that people cannot copy DVDs for personal use, jailbreak gaming consoles for customization, or jailbreak tablets. The central reason why regulators said they made this decision is to avoid piracy and copyright infringement.

Within the DVD category, however, some exemptions apply. While it is illegal to crack DVDs for watching on different devices and platforms, it is legal for people to copy DVDs for use in documentary films. The regulators wrote that DVD copying is permissible in order "to make use of short portions of the motion pictures for the purpose of criticism or comment."

Smartphone jailbreaking was ruled to be lawful under the last examination of the DMCA in 2010. Today, the feds extended that exemption. Users are allowed to install unapproved applications or switch carriers on their smartphones.

There is a catch, however. While smartphone jailbreaking remains legal, the unlocking exemption for switching carriers only lasts until January. According to Ars Technica, the government decided that so many unlocked mobile devices have flooded the market in the past three years that any device purchased in January 2013 and on can only be unlocked with the permission of the network carrier.

The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation made several of the requests to the Copyright Office to allow gaming console, tablet, and smartphone jailbreaking. Despite many of the government's conclusions to the contrary, EFF remains optimistic.

"We are very pleased that the existing exemptions for jailbreaking and vidding were renewed and, in the case of vidding, significantly extended. That is an important victory for tinkerers and creators," EFF's intellectual property director Corynne McSherry told CNET. "It's unfortunate that the Copyright Office didn't take the logical next step and extend the jailbreaking exemption to tablets and consoles, but we are confident it will do so in the next round."

The batch of exemptions laid out by the Copyright Office today are scheduled to begin on October 28 and will remain in effect for the next three years.