A lot of you reading this are repeatedly breaking the law and probably don’t even know it. It has nothing to do with robbing a bank or murdering your boss (although, admit it, you’d LOVE to do that).
No, it involves what you do with your electronic devices.
Last week, the U.S. Copyright Office upheld parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that says you can’t jailbreak, or hack, computer tablets such as an iPad. You also can’t copy your DVD movies, even for your own personal use. Doing so gets you a stint in the Grey Bar Hotel, as they say. The penalties include a stiff fine and a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The fact is, a lot of people do such things, and most law enforcement treats it like jaywalking. I’ve read that anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent of iPhone users jailbreak their phones. Others also jailbreak their iPads, PlayStation 3 consoles and Android devices (which they call “root” instead of “jailbreak.”)
But users should be outraged by the rulings because they take away your freedom to do what you please with your electronic devices. The laws also squash innovation. Yet people who jailbreak haven’t exactly stormed the U.S. Copyright Office with pitchforks and torches because they don’t really know what this all means. Let’s break it down.
Jailbreaking on smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles is a popular thing to do. It’s when hackers create software that hacks the device and allows it to run applications it couldn’t previously because the manufacturer wouldn’t allow it. This basically frees a device of restrictions.
For example, Apple has all kinds of rules regarding what kind of applications can run on the iPhone and iPad. It routinely rejects apps because they don’t fit certain criteria. And sometimes, those reasons aren’t very consistent.
But if you decide to jailbreak your phone or tablet — which can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing — you can run all kinds of applications that can do some amazing things.
There’s one app, for example, that allows you to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot without having to pay all those extraneous and useless fees that carriers such as AT&T and Verizon heap on. Another allows you to run animated wallpaper on your phone or tablet’s homepage, something Apple doesn’t permit. You can change the entire look of the user interface, even customize how the folders and icons look.
Against that backdrop, here’s what’s strange about last week’s ruling. The Copyright Office states it’s legal to jailbreak phones but not tablets. It said tablets are still too “broad and ill-defined,” which also could be applied to e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle or to portable video game systems such as the PlayStation Vita. But phones are becoming the size of tablets and vice versa, and that’s not going to make any sense soon.
The Copyright Office also ruled that it will soon be illegal to “unlock” your phone. That means you won’t be able to hack your phone so it can be used on another carrier. A lot of people like to do that so they can use a specific phone with a carrier that normally doesn’t sell it. But after January, you will need to get the permission of your carrier.
By making jailbreaking illegal, regulators are saying hobbyists and electronics geeks can’t tinker with something they own outright. Worst of all, it stalls innovation. Some of the best ideas for phones came from hackers and jailbreakers who developed applications. Apple has adopted a few ideas from jailbroken apps, such as ways to customize your phone’s user interface.
Finally, it’s still illegal to copy DVD movies for your own use to play on another device, say your phone or tablet. Normally, you could make the argument that it’s “fair use,” meaning that as long as it’s for your own personal use, it should be legal. It’s not. Hollywood believes that when you buy one of its movies on disc, you don’t actually own the movie. Instead, you own the license to only play that movie for yourself or family, and only from that disc.
Obviously, that’s nonsense. You should be allowed to copy that movie to another device if technology allows it. Hollywood thinks that’s a form of piracy, but how can that be so if you bought the original disc and didn’t sell the digital copy you made to someone else?
Copyright laws exist for a reason. They’re in place to stop piracy, and that’s a good thing. But they’re also not made to stifle the full potential of your devices or make things inconvenient. And that’s exactly what the laws are doing.
If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.