Non-Apple apps could put users in the iPrison


POSTED: Monday, February 16, 2009

Is it wrong to break out of jail?

“;Of course,”; you might answer instinctively. On the other hand, if you often watch “;Hogan's Heroes”; reruns, you might be inclined to say, “;Well, it depends.”;

But if you're pressed for time and want to find out exactly where you stand on the issue, just check your iPhone—can it stream live video or not?

If yes, then you must have “;jailbroken”; it, and Apple wants you to know that in its considered opinion, you're definitely loitering around the treacherous charcoal alleys of a legal gray area.

According to CNET.com, the iPhone maker implied as much to the U.S. Copyright Office last week after the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group, sought a fair-use exemption for the device from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Though the Web exists for bloggers to fill in the details in needlessly snarky tones, here's the gist: Apple maintains that unauthorized software designed to go around, through or over the walled garden of the iTunes App Store violates its right to keep the whole tea party neat and tidy inside its well-constructed, moneymaking ecosystem.

The EFF, however, insists that protecting jailbreakers will spark innovation. After all, if you somehow created an iPhone app that cured Lyme disease, Apple would theoretically have the right to block it if the company thought it could make a buck with a competing product.

Thus, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands of iPhones are jailbroken (via easy-to-use software like PwnageTool) to gain functionality not available on iTunes, such as Qik app, which streams live video through iPhones to the Web.

Jailbreaking has settled into a misdemeanor-level hack, at best. Unlike “;unlocking,”; which enables users to toss AT&T phone service overboard, jailbreaking merely gives iPhone users “;extra”; applications not yet invited to the iTunes party.

Well, to be fair, it also opens the door for the evil-inclined to pass around legit iTunes apps they'd otherwise have to buy, taking money out of the pockets of aspiring, deserving developers (assuming they have pockets in their everyday work pajamas).

But jailbreaking does blatantly violate some things lawyers have a hand in—the user agreement and the warranty, which it voids. This means if you're a jailbeaker in need, the bouncers at all the Genius Bars will kick you out of Appleland. For many users, that is “;illegal”; enough.

Of course, you can do any number of less constructive things with your iPhone that void the warranty but are clearly legal. You could put it in a blender and hit puree. You could run over it with a Caterpillar Industrial Loader. You could put it in your back pocket while running from the bulls in Pamplona.

I wouldn't put such activities on your resume, but as long as you owned the blender, you had a Class B driver's license and your passport was up to date, they're unlikely to show up on a background check, either.

The other shoe on this issue will drop in October, when the feds rule on EFF's request.

Hopefully, the Copyright Office will not take us down a path that leads to people pondering actual jailbreaks after committing virtual ones.


Subscribe to columnist Curt Brandao's Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/digitalslob.