What you can - and can't - legally unlock or jailbreak

Yesterday the US Copyright Office decided what was - and wasn't - legal for people to be able to do with the devices they purchase. Let's take a look at the specifics.

iPad repair

Yesterday the US Copyright Office decided what was - and wasn't - legal for people to be able to do with the devices they purchase. While the ruling is overall a big win for people who like to repair and modify devices, there are some weird gaps and exceptions that need to be kept in mind.

Let's take a look at the specifics. These rules go into effect immediately (except where specified) and for a period of three years.

Let's first look at unlocking, or the process of allowing a device that was previously limited to one network provider to use alternative providers. The new ruling allows for the following devices to be unlocked:

  • Cellphones
  • Tablets
  • Mobile hotspots
  • Wearable devices (e.g., smartwatches)

To qualify these devices must be used - in other words they need to have been activated with a carrier prior to unlocking), and the rule does not extend to other devices such as cellular-connected cars.

When it comes to jailbreaking, which is a process of removing software-based limitations on what a device can do, this is legal now for the following devices:

  • Smartphones
  • Tablets and other all-purpose mobile computing devices
  • Smart TVs

However, it should be noted that this does not include e-readers (such as the Kindle Paper) or games consoles. Jailbreaking these devices is still a no-no, even if it is for the purposes of repairing the device.

When it comes to modifying software, the ruling makes that legal on the following devices:

  • Motorized land vehicles
  • 3D printers (but only for the purposes of using alternative feedstock)

However, for this there are some caveats worth bearing in mind:

  • This does not come into effect for 12 months
  • It excludes non-land vehicles
  • Does not allow for modification of the portions of parts of the code that control the telematics or entertainment systems
  • The right to modify the code only applies to the owner, and excludes repair shops or other third parties

Finally, on the subject of security research, the ruling makes it legal for researchers to prod the following:

  • Devices and machines primarily designed for use by individual consumers, including voting machines
  • Motorized land vehicles
  • Medical devices designed for implantation in patients and corresponding personal monitoring systems

These too come into effect in 12 months, with the exception of voting machines where security research will be allowed immediately.

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