Every three years, the U.S. Copyright Office reviews the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and issues opinions on how it should be interpreted. The most talked about exception the Office recently released is its ruling on the legality of “jailbreaking” an iPhone. Much to Apple’s dismay, jailbreaking an iPhone is fair use, which means that it does not violate any copyrights. In releasing this opinion, the U.S. Copyright Office said that there was “no basis in copyright law to assist Apple in protecting its restrictive business model.”

Jailbreaking software (or firmware), when installed on a cell phone, enables the phone to connect to other wireless telecommunication networks. Jailbreaking also allows users to purchase apps from outside the Apple App Store. iPhone users will now be able to download any app, regardless of whether the app has been approved by Apple. iPhone users will also be able to use the phone on networks other than the official iPhone carrier. Apps that you won’t find in the App Store allow users to make their iPhone a WiFi hot-spot and allow users to customize additional iPhone settings, like what appears on the home screen. Unlocking the iPhone allows users to switch to another GSM network in the United States (like T-Mobile) and in other countries. This can help avoid costly international roaming fees for the frequent traveler.

Apple has been quick to point out that legal or not, jailbreaking voids the warranty on the iPhone. Furthermore, Apple warns that jailbreaking the iPhone opens it up malfunctioning and instability.

Apple said that its “goal has always been to insure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone, and we know that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience.” And while the risks of jailbreaking may be true, Steve Jobs’ recent admission that Apple knew of the antenna problems of the iPhone4 cast doubt upon whether Apple has its customers’ best interests at heart.

Ultimately, jailbreaking the iPhone places a lot of the power in the iPhone user instead of Apple, and forces Apple to deal with the pressures of market competition. As successful as the iPhone is, it seems only fair that Apple respond to consumer demand, and this new ruling may force Apple to address this.

Considering that the U.S. Copyright Office reviews DMCA only every three years, it is unlikely that Apple will be able to overturn this decision anytime soon. And while copyright law is designed to “promote science,” it does not follow that copyright protections can be used to prevent others from creating and using software except as approved by Apple.

— Theresa Weisenberger

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