Did feds just blow a hole in the closed door of Apple’s App Store? Probably not.

Big news in the tech world today: The U.S. Copyright Office declared it legal to “jailbreak” iPhones and other smartphones.

Jailbreaking is the act of hacking a device’s operating system so it can run programs not approved by the device maker. It was previously considered a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but the feds today issued several exceptions to the DMCA.

Apple is famous for tight control over which programs are allowed to to run on iPhones and iPads. Today it’s lost a certain measure of control. The ruling doesn’t mean Apple will get all warm and fuzzy toward developers trying to crack the App Store. But it does mean Apple has lost the weapon of using the law to go after iPhone owners from tinkering with the gadgets they paid for.

Here’s what some of the tech blogosphere is saying about the ruling on jailbreaking:

Ars Technica writes,

The most surprising ruling was on “jailbreaking” one’s phone … replacing the company-provided operating system with a hacked version that has fewer limitations. Make no mistake: this was all about Apple. And Apple lost.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that jailbreaking one’s iPhone should be allowed, even though it required one to bypass some DRM and then to reuse a small bit of Apple’s copyright firmware code. Apple showed up at the hearings to say … that the idea was terrible, ridiculous, and illegal. In large part, that was because the limit on jailbreaking was needed to preserve Apple’s controlled ecosystem, which the company said was of great value to consumers.

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing.net, a prominent critic of Digital Rights Management (DRM) is uncertain what the ruling means, but he puts forward some interesting possibilities:


I’m not clear on whether these rulings now make it legal to traffick in circumvention tools that can accomplish this trick: if so, it would mean that you could sell DRM-ripping software in stores, or open a fix-it shop that jailbroke iPhones so that they could access unapproved software from third-party suppliers (including online stores that competed with Apple’s App Store).

Lest you think Apple is going to change its ways as a result of the copyright ruling, Engadget advises,

… you should know that this in no way requires Apple to jailbreak your phone for you, or lay down its arms in this ongoing fight. Basically, they just can’t sue you for the specific act of breaking their protections, but there’s nothing stopping them from putting those protections in there in the first place, or for suing you for an infringement not covered in this exception — like distributing Apple code in a non-Apple-approved way, or installing illegal or pirated software.

And on Daring Fireball, John Gruber writes,

This is good news, but I don’t think there will be much of a practical effect — just because it’s legal doesn’t mean Apple must support it.

What do you think, iPhone users?

  • ryanspublicfeed

    I’m an iphone user, although I left AT&T for T-Mobile. Without the ability to jailbreak my phone I’d have a fairly worthless piece of junk. Now I can “legally” use it on T-Mobile’s network, albeit without visual voicemail or 3G… but… I’m using a 2G [Edge only] iPhone so, does it really matter? No. I keep my ‘paid for’ ‘dumbphone’ around for when I’m on the road because it gets far better signal quality and coverage than the iPhone 2G did.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Whether they like it or not, this is a very good ruling for Apple. A world in which it’s illegal to remove an access plate from a device is a world in which corporations have waaaaaay too much power.

    Now, if they could just apply this kind of insight into the laws that let British Petroleum chase reporters off public beaches….

  • John O.

    Most sheeple are not going to care a whit about a hacked iPhone. For those who choose to go the hacked phone route, the watchwords will be “user beware.”