In Defense of Jailbreaking

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In mid-2010, the United States Copyright Office granted an exemption to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) for phone jailbreaking, stating that the practice falls under Fair Use. This was good news for anyone who wants to tinker with devices they purchased. But later this year, this exemption expires, once again throwing the practice of phone jailbreaking into legal uncertainty.

The EFF and other groups want to take jailbreaking a step further: The EFF wants the US Government to maintain the DMCA exemption for smartphone jailbreaking, and extend it to cover tablets and consoles--apparently, jailbreaking your gaming console or tablet is still legally iffy, and many companies oppose the practice. Now, I'm no lawyer, but as a tech journalist and a consumer, I can't see how outlawing jailbreaking will do anything but hurt us users--and tech companies too. Here's why.

It's About New Ideas

This blog exists in large part to chronicle the amazing, creative things people do with everyday technology, and we've seen some really impressive stuff that could only be possible through device jailbreaking. Take, for instance, all the homebrew apps for the Nintendo Wii, the new and novel ways people have managed to interact with Siri on the iPhone, and so on. Without the freedom to tinker via jailbreaking, we'll see less of this sort of creativity and innovation--the sort of creativity that advances technology.

Freedom to Tinker

JailbreakMe was a Web-based tool that let you jailbreak your iPhone. Apple eventually hired its creator.

I understand why companies would want to control software distribution. After all, this sort of control helps Apple keep iOS free from malware and ensure that the apps you download work properly. The same goes with console makers. There are legitimate reasons for keeping tight control over app distribution.

But for some, the control that smartphone and console makers impose onto their products hurts productivity, and generally makes these products less attractive. Jailbreaking provides users with more control and flexibility over their equipment--equipment that they bought and paid for, thank you very much. Telling a smartphone or tablet owner that they can't tweak their gadget is a bit like telling an auto enthusiast that they can't soup up their car.

From where I'm sitting, there's no good reason for companies to limit what you can do with your own personal equipment. If you bought it, you own it, and as long as you're not pirating content or otherwise breaking the law, you should be able to tweak it as you see fit.

Outlawing Jailbreaking Won't Stop Piracy

Yes, piracy is a problem. Yes, there are ways to pirate software via jailbreaking. But rendering jailbreaking illegal will do nothing to stop piracy. As long as there are computers--whether they live on your desk, on your lap, or in your pocket--people will find ways to download and distribute software and other material without paying for it.

But putting an end to jailbreaking in order to stop piracy would be a bit like taking legitimate services like YouTube offline just because some of its users break the law by posting pirated material. It's overkill, it kills innovation and creativity, and it does nothing to address the piracy problem.

Tech Companies Win, Too

Microsoft's Kinect benefitted from unauthorized software development in a huge way.

Let's not forget that tech companies have benefitted from jailbreaking as well. In August, Apple hired Nicholas Allegra (aka Comex), the brains behind the JailbreakMe hack. Also that month, Samsung hired Steve Kondik, the founder of the CyanogenMod team, which develops a custom version of Android for rooted (jailbroken) Android phones. And before that, Apple hired Peter Hajas, the developer of an app for jailbroken iPhones called MobileNotifier--a tool that appears to be the inspiration for iOS 5's improved notification system.

And George Hotz--the first person to jailbreak the iPhone and PS3? He landed a job at Facebook.

If not for jailbreaking, would the Kinect be where it is today?

If not for jailbreaking, would the Microsoft Kinect be where it is today? Microsoft intended it to be an add-on for use with specific Xbox 360 games, but soon after its launch, intrepid programmers found all sorts of other ways to put the Kinect to good use. Microsoft initially frowned upon these hacks, but the company has since made an about-face and released a software development kit so that anyone can write apps for the Kinect.

If not for jailbreaking, would Apple have opened up the iPhone to third-party software development? It's hard to say for sure, of course, but I think it's safe to say that jailbreaking showed Apple just how hungry iPhone owners were for apps.

So from this standpoint, users aren't the only ones who would lose out if the Copyright office put the kibosh on jailbreaking--tech companies would lose out too.

Show Your Support

The US Copyright Office will make a decision on jailbreaking later this year. In the meantime, you can make your voice heard. The US Copyright Office will accept public comment on this issue until 5PM Eastern time on February 10.

The EFF provides plenty of information on jailbreaking, and offers ways for you to show your support for the practice. To start, read the EFF's primer on the DMCA jailbreaking exemption and its efforts to expand the exemption to include tablets and consoles. The primer also tells you how to get in touch with the US Copyright Office so you can provide your input in this issue. Because if jailbreaking is deemed unlawful, we'll all lose.

Nick Mediati covers security for PCWorld and oversees GeekTech. He has never jailbroken his hardware, but still thinks it's great.

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