3 Reasons Legal Jailbreaking Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be


The U.S. Copyright Office on Monday said it is no longer a copyright violation to jailbreak a smartphone or mobile device to add software or applications, including Apple's now-iconic iPhone.

The copyright office's turnaround on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that prohibits users from circumventing smartphone makers' protections that allow only manufacturer-authorized applications and software was seen by many as a boon for the mobile industry. While Apple and other mobile heavyweights have long protested jailbreaking, claiming it can hurt device functionality, developers and industry watchers alike rejoiced Monday's ruling.

But could it all be for naught? Here are three reasons the U.S. Copyright Office lifting its prohibition of smartphone jailbreaking may not make much of a difference at all.

1. Legal jailbreaking is not a get out of jail free card. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain was quick to point out that the U.S. Copyright Office's change of the jailbreaking law is more "symbolic" than anything, and noted that while it says it's OK to jailbreak a smartphone, there are still other hurdles to overcome that would hinder a potential jailbreaker from both cracking into a device or benefiting from their work.

"The victory for those who want to hack is not trivial even though in large part it is symbolic," Zittrain told TechCrunch. "I mean here it is in honor of the United States government saying this is actually not illegal behavior, this is OK to jailbreak your phone. Interesting thing though is, the specific provision in title 17 of the US code is 1201 and this is 1201 (a)(1), that says you can’t hack in order to gain access to something protected by copyright. It turns out that there’s another provision that says you’re not allowed to market or traffic in tools whose primary purpose is to let people hack and the exceptions are not permitted to be applied to that provision. So even though the Library of Congress has given blessing to the act of hacking here. It’s not able to give a blessing to trafficking in the tools that let you hack."

2. If something goes wrong, you're out of luck. Apple has been the most vocal in its opposition of jailbreaking. Yet countless groups made several attempts, some of which were successful, to crack into the iPhone and add software that Apple never gave a thumbs-up too. And while Apple has never prosecuted a jailbreaker, the high tech giant was quick to update its software in hopes of disabling the ill-added software or application. Apple was also quick to point out that jailbreaking an iPhone voids the warranty and Apple won't support a jailbroken device. Additionally, Apple makes it quite clear in its iPhone Software License Agreement that any attempt to "modify" iPhone software will be banned.

So, basically, Apple is saying that you can jailbreak at your own risk, but it could constitute a breach of contract. And Apple could ban your jailbreak attempts anyway. Oh, and if something goes wrong and you mess up your iPhone, you can pound sand.

3. Jailbreaking only appeals to a small segment of the market. Sure, the government lifting its ban on smartphone jailbreaking could let you put a long-coveted, but unauthorized piece of software on your iPhone, but the majority of iPhone users are content to download and install the applications Apple puts out there for them. Millions line up every year to buy the new iPhone, not with the intent to add software to it, but to use what is already there and what Apple has up its sleeve. Jailbreaking is a niche market and will only appeal to a small number of developers and hackers. Plus, now that it's technically legal, hackers probably won't want to play anymore anyway.