iPhone Jailbreaking and Unlocking Legalized in US

Even though iPhone 4 owners are still waiting for a jailbreak, at least they know when it's released the process will be legal. Thanks to a decision by the US federal government, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has won exemptions for jailbreaking and unlocking under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

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Rulemaking sessions happen every three years, and exemptions to copyright law based on fair use can be requested by organizations and users of digital devices. The much-awaited ruling brings independent software development and iPhone hacking into the mainstream, and removes its grey-area status. Many developers and hobbyists feared that Apple would succeed in criminalizing unauthorized software that runs on gadgets made by the company.

The threat of lawsuits has now been lifted, and third-party versions of Apple's App Store are now officially sanctioned. A press release from the EFF explains, "When one jailbreaks a smartphone in order to make the operating system on that phone interoperable with an independently created application that has not been approved by the maker of the smartphone or the maker of its operating system, the modifications that are made purely for the purpose of such interoperability are fair uses."

Copyright law has long held that modifications for interoperability constitute fair use of a product. Apple was trying to argue that because copyright protections on software can be circumvented by similar means that jailbreaking itself was a violation of the DMCA. In fact, pirating software will remain illegal despite the ruling allowing jailbreaking and independent software development.

The EFF also petitioned for an exemption to the process of unlocking iPhones and other devices such as the iPad 3G. AT&T has an exclusive deal with Apple to provide cellular services for the iPhone and iPad, however this deal is not protected by the DMCA. You have the right to unlock your device and use it with any compatible carrier. According to the US Copyright Office, locking a mobile phone has nothing to do with copyright protection, only to keep the device on a specific carrier.

So will the dam break, with users flocking to Cydia and other alternative app stores? One barrier is that Apple still retains the right to declare a warranty invalid on a jailbroken iPhone. However, most iPhones can easily be restored to their pre-jailbroken state. Jailbreaking may also violate the terms of your AT&T service contract if certain unauthorized apps are used, such as a tethering or Wi-Fi sharing app. As far as unlocking goes, T-Mobile is the only other iPhone compatible carrier in the US.

What's certain is that a weight has been lifted off the entire jailbreak and independent iPhone development community. Further innovation with the computers purchased from Apple is now possible without the threat of lawsuits. Apple's closed system is secure and provides content that keeps most users happy, but now the computer hobbyists can innovate and experiment with abandon.

It remains to be seen if any major software developers will challenge Apple in this regard. For example, some have speculated that Adobe could now release their own version of Flash for the iPhone or iPad without fear of legal action. This would be sure to make more waves in the Apple camp.