Jailbreaking still illegal for tablets and game consoles

Before you hack your tablet or game console, keep in mind that doing so is illegal in the United States, at least for the next three years—not that it matters much.

The Library of Congress, in its periodic review of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF], ruled against exempting tablet and game console jailbreaking from the law, which in general prohibits circumvention of copyright measures. You can still legally jailbreak a smartphone, as permitted after the Library's 2010 DMCA review, but now limits exist on unauthorized unlocking for use on other wireless networks.

Tablets failed to get an exemption on a technicality: The Library simply ruled that a tablet form factor isn't clearly defined, and could be broadly applied to e-readers, handheld gaming devices, or laptops.

For game consoles, the Library agrees with the video game industry that hacking raises the risk of piracy, more so than with smartphone jailbreaking, and that the impact on lawful homebrew activities will be minimal. The Library noted, for instance, that only a very small percentage of users had installed the “Other OS” feature on their Playstation 3 consoles before Sony removed it.

“At the same time, there are thousands of alternative devices that can be used to develop and run Linux-based video games and other applications,” the Library wrote in its ruling.

Smartphone hacks still OK

As for smartphones, the Library upheld its DMCA exemption for jailbreaking or rooting, but ruled that unlocking new wireless phones is not exempt from the law. The market already offers plenty of options for unlocked phones, and major wireless carriers generally allow unlocking for many of their handsets, so an exemption wasn't necessary, the Library ruled. The limits on unlocking will apply to phones purchased after January, 90 days after the new exemptions go into effect.

unlocked iphone

For most users, the rulings don't amount to much. Hardware makers have other ways of discouraging jailbreaks, such as voiding the user's warranty, removing jailbreaks through software updates or withholding updates altogether. Game console makers crack down on hacked hardware by banning users from online services, which are an increasingly integral part of the experience. Those are all more effective punishments than the vague threat of legal repercussions, and DMCA has no impact on them.

Meanwhile, legal action isn't always a huge deterrent for hackers. Sony's Playstation 3 was recently hacked again, so the fact that Sony has sued hackers for DMCA violations in the past was obviously not a concern. Jailbreaking for tablets, such as Apple's iPad, is alive and well regardless of what the law says.

So although the latest DMCA ruling may be upsetting in theory for users who like to tinker, in practice it's more about legal posturing than keeping you from running Cydia on an iPad.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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