The Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress today officially sanctioned jailbreaking the iPhone, and while they were at it also put their pen to paper approving unlocking the device as well. Apple originally weighed in on this issue in February of 2009.
I've been reading the various news coverage (including ours) around this story, and it seems a good idea to define why jailbreaking is important, why the government agrees, and what jailbreaking isn't. This article will be a bit long, as I'd like to address the point fairly fully.
At the end of the article I'll reference some of the big points from the official filing. But let's get back to the original question - why does jailbreak matter?
Running iphoneland.de.lv, my daily conversations with people (frickin' EVERYONE has an iPhone) always wind up turning to jailbreak, and there's the single inevitable question - "well why should I jailbreak?" A lot of "apps" come up - MyWi, WinterBoard, Notifier, Intelliscreen, SBSettings... which is what they're usually asking. Those are reasons TO jailbreak, though, not reasons FOR jailbreak to be legal and important. To answer that question, we need to take a look at what jailbreaking is.
At it's core, jailbreaking is not an app, it's not Cydia, it's one simple thing - having unrestricted write access to your device. In more technical terms, it's having root access. In the Android scene, it's actually called rooting your device.
So what's the big deal you ask? Maybe you're not a hacker, or even a "hobbyist" or "enthusiast" - that's fine. Maybe you don't care about having any access at all to your device - it does everything you need already. You don't want to jailbreak, and you never will. That's fine, and for many, true. My iPhone 4 isn't jailbroken yet, and it's been handling itself just fine - of course there's tons of jailbreak apps I miss (Notifier, Tlert, MyWi, WinterBoard, iFile, and OpenSSH/SSL being some of the biggest). But if I /want/ to modify my device, which I have purchased and own outright, for completely legal activities, enhancing the original purpose of the device (a "smartphone") - it should be legal. Whether I do so or not should remain wholly my choice.
This precedent is in nearly every computer or "smart" gadget on the market. When you go down to Best Buy and purchase Sony or Toshiba's latest laptop, the Best Buy people don't tell you "now this has Windows, you can install any program Microsoft sells through their store here. Anything else is illegal." Or from Sony/Toshiba/whomever's store. You're free to install any Windows-compatible app you'd like to. You're not infringing any copyright by installing third-party software on your computer, you're simply installing third-party software. The same can be said even of Apple's desktop/laptop operating system, OS X. There is none of this "purchasing software from anywhere but us is illegal" talk anywhere but in the iOS field. Heck, you can even put programs on your Texas Instruments graphing calculator.
Many people seem to associate "jailbreaking" with "iPhone piracy." This is a flawed view. Piracy IS illegal, has been clearly defined as such legally for years, and is not at all synonymous with jailbreaking. Take ModMyi.com as a case study - we have over 675,000 members, the vast majority of whom have jailbroken one or more iDevices, and we strictly forbid any talk, linking, or mention of pirated apps. I personally have had a jailbroken iPhone longer than nearly anyone here (ModMyi actually created the first ever iPhone "theme"), and I have never pirated an iPhone app. It has always been our standpoint piracy is 100% illegal, and is rude on top of that. Devs spend days and weeks building $2 and $5 apps - if you want them enough to install them, you should pay for them.
Another false argument many people seem to use to argue against jailbreaking is security. I've seen comments all over opposing jailbreak by saying "well these sort of things can bring down a cell network." Or "what if they install a virus." Those activities are also illegal. In fact, any hacker who has root access to an iPhone also has (just as every single one of us does, out of the box) root access to any Mac they purchase, and could do just as much damage from their laptop as they could from an iPhone. More, perhaps. Restricting access to ALL third party software is not a valid security tactic, and in any other OS would be laughable - building a more secure OS is the answer. The only reason it's been questionable this long with the iPhone is a mobile operating system this capable, and robust has never been this publicly widespread. We're in new territory. If Microsoft were to suddenly require all programs in Windows to be purchased/sold ONLY through Micorosoft's own fully independent arbitrary storefront, pundits would be up in arms.
I stress again - illegal activity done by means of jailbreak is and should be just as illegal and prosecutable as illegal activity done from ANY device, including one's laptop/desktop. This has never been put in question, and to equate the two is to speak ignorantly.
I'll pull some content from the official ruling below. What's your take on this?
Here's Apple's argument to the government against the jailbreaking case (from the .pdf linked to here under "For the full rulemaking order:"):