Jailbreak Software – Is It Legal?

There is a lot of interest in jailbreaking iPhones and other electronic devices. But is it legal? I’m going to discuss that in this article.

There are two main issues that come into play when we talk about jailbreaking. The first is that phones are often bound to a specific carrier when they are first manufactured. Many cell phone users are very happy with their specific, physical phone, but not with their carrier. They would love to port their phone to a new carrier. Others would like to be able to sell their cell phones on Craigslist when they’re done with them to get a little money back out of their investment. However, it’s difficult with a phone that’s locked to a certain carrier, because they have to find a buyer that has a contract with the same carrier. Good luck with that. When a phone is bound to a certain carrier, it’s often referred to as being in cell phone “jail”, hence the term jailbreaking. This used to be illegal. However, as a result of a recent court ruling, it has now been deemed completely legal in the United States.

Locking phones, or putting them in “jail” goes back to the late 1980s. Ever since carriers started engaging in this practice, hackers have been finding ways to unlock them using jailbreak software. This jailbreak software would generate a key that tricked the phone into working with any carrier. With the rise in popularity of the iPhone, and Apple’s restriction of their use to AT&T, this practice has gone mainstream and become widespread.

I mentioned above that there were two main issues. The second is specific to the various models of iPhone. One of the features of the iPhone that has contributed to it’s massive popularity is the ability to purchase and download “apps”. Apple only allows users to download apps from the official App Store. However, there are possibly even more third-party, unauthorized apps out there than there are in the App Store. Once you do a jailbreak on a phone, you can then use these unauthorized apps.

You’ve probably heard of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (The DMCA). This was the law that regulated “pirated” software. The act made it a crime to hack or crack any security measures that the manufacturer or copyright owner added to their work or device to prevent it from being copied, altered, or used in an unauthorized manner. This was interpreted to also apply to cell phones and the software that ran on them.

In July of 2010, however, the Library of Congress issued new rules for what they referred to as “fair use” of copyrighted materials and software. This of course, also applied to cell phone operating systems and software. The Library of Congress was authorized by the DMCA to make revisions to the law due to the constantly and ever-changing nature of digital media and intellectual property.

The new “Fair Use” rules issued by the Library of Congress officially and explicitly made it legal to unlock cell phones and similar devices either by manually hacking them or by using automated jailbreak software. It also explicitly states that once unlocked, it is legal to use a phone with a carrier other than the one which it was intended for use with. Furthermore, it states that it is legal to bypass software locks in order to use apps from third parties.

Other new rules, not specifically related to cell phones, that were put into effect include:

Making it legal to

The 2010 rules issued by the Library of Congress officially authorize consumers’ ability to:

  • Making it legal to to “unlock” the encryption on video games and to make copies – as long as the copies are not shared.
  • Making it legal to bypass hardware dongles on PCs that are used for copyright protection – but only if it’s because the dongle is no longer functional. This rule obviously needs to be clarified

Finally, occupational and disability related exemptions were put into place. Teachers, film students, and film makers are now legally permitted to unlock DVDs for educational or critical purposes. On the disability side, blind individuals are now allowed to legally crack security measure on e-books in order to make them compatible with read-aloud type software.