There's gonna be a jailbreak

New rules let iPhone users legally break free from Apple apps

For most people of a certain age, raised in the era of spaghetti westerns, the word "jailbreak" conjures images of an outlaw's henchmen tying a team of horses to the bars of his cell window and using their power to tear down the wall. But although Sergio Leone -- the director most emblematic of the genre -- probably wouldn’t approve, in this movie the craggy old sheriff, played by Steve Jobs, opens the cell door and reluctantly lets the outlaw walk free. Although the sheriff doesn’t like it, the federal government told him he had to do it.

New rules announced by the federal government this week make the modern version of jailbreaking — separating your iPhone from its host network — completely legal. Although the legality of jailbreaking was always a bit of a gray area, the Library of Congress, which oversees the Copyright Office, has come down squarely on the side of the digital outlaws (or freedom fighters, depending on what side of the issue you happen to be on).

Under the new rules, users can use applications without Apple's stamp of approval, although they have to do a bit of hacking to make it happen. A phone that isn’t broken can only download and run applications from the Apple store. Some critics have said that Apple disallows too many applications based on corporate profit motivations, internal politics, or simply vague reasoning.

Although it’s now legal for users to jailbreak their iPhones, the law doesn’t prevent Apple from taking retaliatory measures, such as creating new operating system patches that disable jailbroken phones. So perhaps that sheriff might shoot his prisoner in the back as he leaves the jail.

Other rules include the ability for users to break an electronic lock on any phone that ties it to a single carrier, lets deaf people break locks so they can use electronic books with any reader of their choice, and allows educators to ignore copyright rules on DVDs to embed clips into other works for educational purposes.

The new rules go into effect today and are expected to last at least a few years. The Library of Congress reviews its current rules every few years and edits them as it feels is necessary.

Personally, I never thought jailbreaking was illegal to begin with. Once I purchase a product, it’s mine. The company that sold the product has no business telling me what I can and can’t do with it once I own it. That goes for anything from cell phones to fruit to new vehicles. If I want to take my shiny new car and enter it in a demolition derby, that’s my business. And isn’t that what America is all about? We have the God-given right to be stupid. And nobody can take that away from us.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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