Damn the DMCA, fully jailbroken iPhones ahead

The feds have lifted restrictions on jailbreaking Apple iPhones and mashing up YouTube videos. Is the DMCA finally dead?

Free at last, free at last -- thank the law, we're free at last.

That, at least, is the refrain coming from iPhone jailbreakers and YouTube mashup artists, who are singing the praises of the Electronic Frontier Foundation after it helped make these activities exempt from prosecution under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Can't wait for the new jailbreak apps? Find out what you can download now in "21 apps Apple doesn't want on your 3.0 iPhone" | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

The EFF succeeded in persuading the Copyright Office and the Congressional Librarian to allow people to modify their iPhones, even if that means doing things Apple doesn't want them to do -- like unlocking them from AT&T and/or running any apps they want, including those that don't carry the Steve Jobs Seal of Approval.

The EFF also won an exception for YouTube video remixes. You may now legally rip portions of a DVD and upload them to the viral video site, provided you do something that changes them in a substantive way -- adding opera vocals to a video of singing cats, for example. And you can break the DRM on an e-book in order to turn it into an audiobook using text-to-speech conversion software (but only if no other commercial audio versions are available).

The DMCA comes up for review every three years, and this time around, the EFF convinced DMCA reviewers to make what is possibly the worst piece of federal legislation targeting technology ever written slightly less onerous by giving people a tad more control over stuff they've legally paid for.

It's not exactly a radical concept, unless you're a Hollywood studio or a megalomaniacal turtleneck-wearing control freak. In other words, if the DMCA ruled grocery stores, you'd be able to buy bread, but you wouldn't be allowed to toast it. Or you could make toast, but you'd only be allowed to butter it using dairy products officially approved by the bread manufacturer.

Now, thanks to the EFF, you can slather on all the butter that bread can hold -- on both sides, even -- and eat it however you want.

What's likely to happen after this ruling? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict a large infusion of porn apps for the iPhone (why should Android users have all the fun?), as well as other apps Apple doesn't like. Google Voice, anyone? Also, look out for a healthy portion of iPhone malware pretending to be porn and banned apps.

As Network World's Paul McNamara notes, YouTube "Hitler Finds Out..." videos are likely to come back into vogue, along with other copyrighted material that's been quashed due to DMCA takedown notices. I'm not entirely convinced that's a big plus.

But I don't expect an iPhone revolution. Apple has been saying jailbreaking isn't allowed because it violates the DMCA. Now Apple will simply say it isn't allowed because Apple doesn't allow it. The game of cat and mouse between it and the jailbreakers will continue unabated, though this might inspire more people to hack the iPhone -- and more OS updates attempting to undo whatever the hackers just did. Not a whole lot of changes there.

Even so, these exemptions aren't exactly a cure for the DMCA blues. As Ars Technica's Nate Anderson writes:

Other, broader exemptions were not allowed. Bypassing the DRM on purchased music when the authentication servers have gone dark? Still illegal. Bypassing the DRM on streaming video in order to watch it on non-supported platforms? Nope.

But the exemptions that did make it were carefully thought out and actually helpful this time around. That's the good news. The bad news is that they must be re-argued every three years, and the Library has taken so long getting its most recent ruling out that the next review happens just two years from now.

Still, it's nice when the good guys win. Too bad it doesn't happen more often.

What techno laws do you love or loathe? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Damn the DMCA, fully jailbroken iPhones ahead" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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