Unlocking and jailbreaking are now legal in the US
Jailbreaking iPhones and unlocking phones in general have traditionally been activities that were, legally, in at least a grey area.
In fact, the opponents of such practices have long claimed that doing these procedures was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and thus illegal. The DMCA did not allow for “Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems”, which is the section that such procedures fall under.
Until now. The Librarian of Congress has revised the DMCA and the changes are very good news for phone owners, and rather bad news for the likes of Apple.
Let’s take them one by one.
In the case of jailbreaking, the objections that Apple had were related to its need to preserve the iOS ecosystem. The Register of Copyrights, however, concluded that since you have to have bought an iPhone in order to engage in jailbreaking, there is absolutely no risk that it would affect sales of the devices. In fact, this is a classic fair use case, and Apple is only concerned about its reputation, not lost sales. Apple claim that these activities harm the integrity of the iPhone ecosystem, and while that may be true, apparently it has nothing to do with copyright.
Apple’s other objection, that jailbreakers use Apple code, was also thrown out. It turns out that fewer than 50 bytes of code are used, out of a total of 8 million bytes of code, or approximately 1/160,000 of the copyrighted work as a whole.
So, from now on, jailbreaking is legal and a matter of fair use.
What is unknown at this point is if Apple and AT&T will be forced to accept warranty repair claims from people with jailbroken iPhones, but if that isn’t happening today, it surely doesn’t seem impossible in theory.
Next up, unlocking a phone is also legal now.
Unlocking is the procedure which aims to make the device usable on a carrier other than the one it was purchased from (and locked to).
This mainly applies to GSM-based networks, like AT&T and T-Mobile, where the use of SIM cards makes switching carriers and the unlocking procedure easier. In theory, this could also be applied to CDMA unlocking (for networks such as Verizon and Sprint), but it might be a bit trickier in practice. Because CDMA phones don’t use interchangeable SIM cards, the phone is practically ‘hardwired’ to the provider who sells them. To unlock a CDMA phone, some reprogramming is usually needed, and the carriers do not, as a rule, accept phones that they haven’t sold to run on their network. Which is a problem, because according to the DMCA changes regarding unlocking, the carrier that you want to switch to has to authorize your device for use on the network.
Be that as it may, this is very good news for mobile phone users and might unleash many more interesting tools on the jailbreaking and unlocking fronts. Hopefully the developers of such tools will have nothing left to fear and will therefore create better procedures and faster updates.