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27 Jul 2010
Recent fairly breathless news coverage has said that the US government has said it's legal to jailbreak your iPhone. That's somewhat correct but the reality is, as usual, somewhat more complex.
In 1998, section 103 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) made it illegal to circumvent copy protection software. But it also said that every three years the Register of Copyrights will look at situations where copy protection interferes with non-infringing use of material, and publish what's essentially a list of exceptions, permitted copy protection cracks.
This year's list includes jail-breaking your phone for the purpose of running programs you've legally obtained, or for connecting to another legitimate network. This is entirely reasonable since copyright is limited to restrictions on making copies of material, not what you can do with it, and copyright says nothing about what phones can be used with what software, or on what network.
The list also has some other exceptions of more or less interest. Cracking DVDs to use snippets in news reports is another exception. You can crack videogames to test for security flaws, crack copy protection dongle code if nobody sells the dongle any more, and crack ebooks for use with screen readers if there's no version of the book that already allows screen reading.
This does not affect any contracts you may have agreed to when you bought or activated your iPhone, but it does mean that if you bought one without a contract (on eBay perhaps), and you want to use it on a network other than the one it was programmed for, you can do what you need to in order to make it work.
Some European countries forbid locking phones to networks. This means you don't get free phones, since the network can't make up the cost by forcing you to use their service, but it also means networks are a lot more competitive since it's easier to switch. Since you end up paying for the "free" phone anyway over the course of a contract, I much prefer the flexibility to pick the network that offers what I want.
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