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US Copyright Office says jailbreaking phones still legal, but tablets aren't included

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Appeals for legalized game console mods and DVD backups also rejected

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Welcome to Cydia

The US Copyright Office has upheld the legality of jailbreaking phones, but rejected appeals to extend the same protection to tablet computers. In its triennial review of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Federal Register says that since the category of tablets is difficult to define it would be dangerous to issue a blanket exemption — for instance, it could theoretically apply to e-readers and portable game consoles. This may be so, but with the ever-increasing size of phones it seems arbitrary to make the distinction based on whether a device has a radio and earpiece or not.

Elsewhere, the Copyright Office rejected appeals to legalize making personal backups of DVDs, as well as modifying game consoles. Its conclusion was that "space shifting" — copying legally owned DVDs to play on other devices — remains a violation of fair use, and noted that no court has ever found it legal. You will, however, be able to copy "short portions" (exactly how short is undefined) of video for use in education, documentaries, and non-commercial ventures. There are also provisions for delving into the encryption code to engineer accessibility features for the disabled.

"Video games are far more difficult and complex to produce than smartphone applications."

As for game consoles, the Register found against a proposal by the EFF to allow the circumvention of access protection, saying that "the fair use analysis for video consoles diverged from that in the smartphone context." This was put down to the fact that locking down systems protects the games as well as the console OS itself, and the Register noted that "video games are far more difficult and complex to produce than smartphone applications." With the gap between mobile and console gaming narrowing every year, we're not sure how long this argument will hold up.

Another decision relates to unlocking phones so that they'll work on any carrier. While there is still an exemption making this legal, the terms have been significantly narrowed and it won't last long — essentially, you'll need permission from your carrier to legally unlock any phone bought after January 2013. The Register says this is because software is licensed to users, not owned by them, and also cited the ease of acquiring an unlocked device through legitimate means. This is a somewhat dubious assertion, but it's certainly true that unlocked phones are more common now than they once were; for this reason, it'll remain legal to unlock phones bought until January of next year.

You'll soon need permission from your carrier to legally unlock any phone

One expansion of rights under the Register's ruling applies to getting around ebook DRM for the purpose of accessing assistive technologies such as text-to-speech. Users were already allowed to do this, but only if there wasn't a DRM-free version of the book in question available on the market. Due to what the Register describes as "fragmentation within the industry and differing technical standards and accessibility capabilities across platforms," this restriction has now been removed. It's a welcome piece of common sense in the new rulings, which otherwise frequently highlight how copyright law has little relation to the way people use technology today. The rulings take effect from October 28th and will remain valid for three years.