Jailbreaking, a way of modifying an iPhone to run unauthorized apps, has been deemed legal by the Library of Congress' Copyright Office.
Thanks to an obscure rulemaking procedure, the practice was granted an exemption under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, despite protests from Apple. The Electronic Frontier Foundation had sought the exemption.
"It's not just important because consumers have demonstrated they want to jailbreak their cell phones. It tells companies that want to create alternatives to the app store that there will be a customer for them," said Jennifer Granick, Civil Liberties Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If you have an application that Apple wouldn't like, you may well have an alternative outlet."
That could be important. Media observers have questioned whether Apple should be able to keep such tight control over the apps users' can put onto their phones. Such concerns flared when Apple initially rejected Pullitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore's app because it "ridicule[d] public figures."
Still, the new exemption is quite limited, in some senses:
Computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained, with computer programs on the telephone handset.
While the copyright ruling provides protections for jailbreakers, the people who make the tools to do it are not similarly guarded from legal action. That's just how the provision was structured, Granick said, and was not a specific decision of the Copyright Office.
The regulation also cannot prevent Apple from playing hardball with would-be jailbreakers or making their phones difficult to crack.
Apple did not return my request for comment by the time I posted this story. I'll update if I hear from them.