Feds: Come On, Jailbreak Your iPhone, It's Legal Now


Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott said it best: "Tonight there's gonna be a jailbreak." But this time there won't be any searchlights or hounds.

The Irish rock frontman likely had no idea his 1976 tune would be a cry of freedom from smartphone users in the U.S. who no longer have to fear violating copyright laws by jailbreaking their mobile devices, including the Apple iPhone.

The U.S. Copyright Office ruled on Monday that it's no longer a violation to jailbreak an iPhone or any other mobile device. Jailbreaking is the act of circumventing, overriding or bypassing a smartphone maker's protection mechanisms that make the device proprietary, meaning a jailbroken device can download and run applications and software not approved by the device manufacturer or the wireless carrier.

Every three years the Copyright Office reexamines the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a 1998 federal law that forbids consumers from breaking copyright control mechanisms. This year, the federal copyright office lifted the ban on mobile device jailbreaking. Additionally, the change in copyright law lets users switch from one wireless carrier to another with the new provider's permission.

In a statement, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington wrote in a statement that users who circumvent "computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained, with computer programs on the telephone handset" and users who circumvent "computer programs, in the form of firmware or software, that enable used wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telecommunications network, when circumvention is initiated by the owner of the copy of the computer program solely in order to connect to a wireless telecommunications network and access to the network is authorized by the operator of the network" will not be subject to statutory prohibition of against circumvention.

Apple has long criticized jailbreaking and has worked feverishly to ensure only approved applications can be added and used on its iPhone. While Apple has never prosecuted anyone for jailbreaking an iPhone, the company continually updates its software to block the practice and disable jailbroken phones. Meanwhile, some developer groups have made a game out of jailbreaking the Apple iPhone. For example, hackers that are part of the iPhone Dev Team have already demonstrated how to jailbreak the new Apple iPhone 4 and were planning to release the software soon.

Other device makers have been critical of the process as well, refusing to support smartphones that have been broken and claiming that adding outside and unapproved software and applications can destabilize the device.

“We know that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience,” Apple told The Washington Post in a statement. “As we've said before, the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones as this can violate the warranty and can cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably.”

Meanwhile, organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has urged the Library of Congress to lift several prohibitions, including jailbreaking, called the Copyright Office's ruling a victory, adding that Apple iPhone users have long wanted to be able to break the shackles of being tied to AT&T as the carrier and liberate themselves with Apple-authorized iTunes applications on their iPhones.

"The Copyright Office recognizes that the primary purpose of the locks on cell phones is to bind customers to their existing networks, rather than to protect copyrights," said Jennifer Granick, EFF's Civil Liberties Director, in a statement posted on the foundation's Web site. "The Copyright Office agrees with EFF that the DMCA shouldn't be used as a barrier to prevent people who purchase phones from keeping those phones when they change carriers. The DMCA also shouldn't be used to interfere with recyclers who want to extend the useful life of a handset."