The US Copyright Office, a unit of the Library of Congress, this week ruled that iPhone users are free to "jailbreak" their devices, opening them up to non-Apple-approved applications. Anyway, that's how it's been reported. The New York Times noted that the ruling means Apple has "lost a bit of its grip" over customers, while The Wall Street Journal reported that iPhone users were now free to alter the software on their phones.
Neither of these statements really describes what has transpired.
The Library of Congress ruling, such as it is, refers to a much broader question of circumventing technology designed to protect copyright works and is not specific to Apple or the iPhone at all. (In fact, neither term appears in the ruling.) The ruling falls along the lines of well-established previous rulings regarding fair use and copyrighted works. That is, that making non-infringing uses of copyrighted works is, in fact, legal.
There are six "classes of work" described in this ruling, only one of which applies in any way to unlocking an iPhone. It is described as those "computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained, with computer programs on the telephone handset." Other classes of work described in the ruling include DVD movies, unfettered wireless access for mobile devices, video games, PC dongles, and eBooks.
The Library of Congress notes that it is legal, from a fair use perspective, for customers to bypass a phone's controls in order to install software applications that will run on that phone. It's not iPhone-specific at all, but looked at in terms of the iPhone, this means that iPhone users could theoretically install applications on the device that were purchased or downloaded outside of Apple's tightly-controlled App Store ecosystem.
There's just one problem. As Apple has noted repeatedly, if you jailbreak your iPhone, you have just voided your warranty.
"Apple's goal has always been to insure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone," an Apple representative said this week. "Jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience and can violate the warranty and can cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably."
So, to reiterate: The Library of Congress did issue a fair use ruling with regards to six classes of technologies. And yes, from a fair use perspective, users are free to "jailbreak" an iPhone. But doing so will void the warranty. Isn't that last fact still the most pertinent part of this story?