Yes, you can jailbreak your phone

Federal ruling allows slightly more freedom to use what you've bought the way you want, but much more is needed

Topics: Copyright, Apple, iPhone, Smart Phones, Intellectual Property,

Yes, you can jailbreak your phone

Good news in the copyright world is rare, but we have a couple of small victories to celebrate this week. The bad news: They only emphasize how grossly unbalanced our system remains.

These wins for customer freedom center around a technology broadly known as DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management — methods used by hardware and software companies to allow customers only certain rights. It should more properly be called Digital Restrictions Management, because that’s the real aim of DRM. People have found ways to break or work around DRM, but federal law makes it illegal to do so in most circumstances.

The cracks in DRM’s legal facade are starting to grow, too. On Monday, the Copyright Office and librarian of Congress said, among other things, that it’s OK to A) “jailbreak” your phone, thereby letting you install software not approved by the phone seller; and B) use brief excerpts of DVD videos in other works. Renewing a previously granted exception to federal copyright law, the office also said it was OK to unlock your phone so that you can use it with a different mobile network.

The exceptions are still fairly narrow, to be sure, and how widely they’ll be used remains to be seen given the way our mobile phone and media markets work in the real world. But they’re notable in several ways.

One is the language the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, used in his rulemaking document (1.5MB PDF). For example, he called the act of jailbreaking a phone “innocuous at worst and beneficial at best.”

Industry arguments against these exceptions, for which the Electronic Frontier Foundation had led the fight, had been laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Apple, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, took the hardest-line stance against the concept that customers should have the right to use the devices they’ve purchased as they see fit.

Apple’s objections ultimately came down to its insistence that customer freedoms would “undercut the overall iPhone experience” (emphasis from the original document filed in the case). In other words, you should only be able to use the iPhone, which is nothing more than a handheld computer connected to digital networks — albeit a wonderfully designed device — in precisely the ways Apple determines.

Having lost in the Copyright Office, Apple responded with typical arrogance, telling the Cult of Mac blog that it might now be legal to use your iPhone the way you want to, but you’ll void the warranty if you do. And you can expect Apple to keep up its cat-and-mouse game of using software updates to screw up jailbroken phones, as the iPhone Dev-Team — leaders of the jailbreaking movement — are warning.

The continued ability to unlock your phone and use it on a competing network isn’t much help, because of the insanity of America’s competing mobile standards. Even if you unlock a newer iPhone, you can’t use it to its maximum capabilities on Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile because of various radio and chip incompatibilites.

But if you travel overseas frequently, unlocking your GSM-based AT&T or T-Mobile phone will be nontrivial (assuming it isn’t already unlocked, as mine is). You can use local SIM cards in many countries and save a huge amount of money.

The other important move by the Copyright Office was to allow people to remix videos in other works. Essentially, the copyright officials observed that it was ridiculous to believe that we’re all but forbidden from quoting from others’ creative work just because it’s in a DRM’d video format.

Unfortunately, this exception is way too narrow in the real world. It allows circumvention of the DRM solely for:

 (i) Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students;

(ii) Documentary filmmaking;

(iii) Noncommercial videos.

In other words, it’s still not allowed to quote from another video work for commercial use (other than in a documentary). This is nuts. If authors had to get permission from every writer or publisher whose work they intended to quote, scholarship and journalism would grind to a halt.

The copyright office’s exemptions also included the right to bypass computer system dongles that are broken or obsolete; a research exception for studying video game security; and read-aloud functions in e-books if not provided by the publisher.

Again, we shouldn’t overstate the value of Monday’s ruling. The law remains horribly unbalanced in favor of the copyright holders. But any progress is helpful.

(Note: I’ve donated money to the EFF, an organization that is leading the way in preserving and enhancing our digital freedoms. Also, in 2002 the EFF honored me with one of its Pioneer awards.)

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Rose Jay via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Labrador Retriever

    These guys are happy because their little brains literally can't grasp the concept of global warming.

    Hysteria via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    German Shepherd

    This momma is happy to bring her little guy into the world, because she doesn't know that one day they'll both be dead.

    Christian Mueller via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Golden Retriever

    I bet these guys wouldn't be having so much fun if they knew the sun was going to explode one day.

    WilleeCole Photography via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America


    This dude thinks he's tough, but only because nobody ever told him about ISIS.

    Soloviova Liudmyla via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America


    This little lady is dreaming about her next meal-- not Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

    Labrador Photo Video via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Yorkshire Terrier

    This trusting yorkie has never even heard the name "Bernie Madoff."

    Pavla via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America


    She is smiling so widely because she is too stupid to understand what the Holocaust was.

    Aneta Pics via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America


    Sure, frolic now, man. One day you're going to be euthanized and so is everyone you love.

    Dezi via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    French Bulldog

    He's on a casual afternoon stroll because he is unfamiliar with the concept of eternity.

    Jagodka via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America


    Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be this care-free? But we can't because we are basically all indirectly responsible for slavery.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>