The decision to allow the practice commonly known as "jailbreaking" is one of a handful of new exemptions from a 1998 federal law that prohibits people from bypassing technical measures that companies put on their products to prevent unauthorized uses. The Library of Congress, which oversees the Copyright Office, reviews and authorizes exemptions every three years to ensure that the law does not prevent certain non-infringing uses of copyright-protected material.
Unless users unlock their devices, they can only download apps from Apple's iTunes store. Software developers must get such apps pre-approved by Apple, which sometimes demands changes or rejects programs for what the developers say are vague reasons.
The new government rules, however, won't stop Apple from continuing its practice of disabling jailbroken phones with software upgrades. That means owners of such phones might not be able to take advantage of software improvements, and they still run the risk of voiding their warranty. All the new rules do is exempt the user from legal liability — something Apple does not appear to be pursuing anyway. Apple did not return messages for comment Monday.
In addition to jailbreaking, other exemptions announced Monday would:
— allow owners of used cell phones to break access controls on their phones in order to switch wireless carriers.
— allow people to break technical protections on video games to investigate or correct security flaws.
— allow college professors, film students and documentary filmmakers to break copy-protection measures on DVDs so they can embed clips for educational purposes, criticism, commentary and noncommercial videos.
— allow computer owners to bypass the need for external security devices called dongles if the dongle no longer works and cannot be replaced.
— allow blind people to break locks on electronic books so that they can use them with read-aloud software and similar aides.
Although the jailbreaking exemption is new, all the others are similar to the last set of exemptions, which were announced in November 2006. The new rules take effect Tuesday and are expected to last a few years.
The exceptions are a big victory for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had urged the Library of Congress to legalize several of them, including the two regarding cell phones.
Jennifer Stisa Granick, EFF's civil liberties director, said the rules are based on an important principle: Consumers should be allowed to use and modify the devices that they purchase the way they want. "If you bought it, you own it," she said.