CUPERTINO, Calif. - Apple is clashing with software companies and consumer advocates over so-called "jailbreaking" of the popular iPhone.
"Jailbreaking" is a hacker's term, referring to the modification of an iPhone operating system to allow the installation of third-party software. The iPhone is designed to run only applications authorized by Apple and its carrier partner, AT&T, forcing consumers to buy software exclusively from Apple's online App Store.
Modifying the hardware is a warranty violation, and users with jailbroken phones lose repair coverage. But thousands of consumers are doing it - and Apple wants to make the practice illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
An online free-speech group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation stands against Apple, supporting consumers' rights to alter the iPhone. The EFF has asked the U.S. Copyright Office to consider a DMCA exemption for jailbreaking in a current review of proposed changes to the law.
"There is no copyrighted rationale for preventing iPhone owners from 'jailbreaking' their phones, enabling them to interoperate with applications lawfully obtained from a source of their own choosing," the organization said in a statement.
Reacting to the EFF petition, Apple filed its own comments with the Copyright Office last week. The manufacturer argues that jailbreaking should be classified as copyright infringement and a violation of DMCA law.
On the flipside, several software companies have joined the EFF in lobbying for a jailbreaking exemption under the DMCA. These companies include Mozilla, maker of the popular Firefox browser.
"It's the principle of the thing," Mozilla CEO John Lilly told Computerworld. "Choice is good for users, and choice shouldn't be criminalized. The Internet is too important for all of us for that."
An attorney for Mozilla also protested the principle of placing legal restrictions on cell-phone hacking.
"By controlling the software that can be installed on these cellular phones, these companies can limit and control the type of programs and functionality that is available to users of their devices," Mozilla general counsel Harvey Anderson wrote.
Software developers Skype and Cydia likewise oppose anti-"jailbreaking" measures. Apple's rigid policies have prevented iPhone consumers from enjoying the benefits of their products, the companies claim.
"Copyright law should not interfere with a user using his or her phone to run Skype and enjoy the benefits of low- or no-cost long-distance and international calling," a Skype representative said.
If the Copyright Office attaches criminal penalties to cell-phone hacking, the use of adult-oriented applications would be driven even further into the black market. Apple has taken a strict stance against racy iPhone apps in an effort to keep its platform "clean". Adult producers such as Digital Playground and Pink Visual may continue to run websites that offer adult content optimized for iPhone users, since these are merely files and not applications.
EFF senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann cited legal precedents that would allow hacking despite Apple's arguments.
"The courts have long recognized that copying software while reverse-engineering is a fair use, when done for purposes of fostering interoperability with independently created software, a body of law that Apple conveniently fails to mention," Lohmann wrote.
Lohmann also questioned Apple's claim that hacked phones will lead to compromises in safety, security and the proliferation of pirated software. He compared the altering of phone devices to customizing a car.
"Many iPhone owners will be happy to choose solely from the applications that Apple is willing to approve, just like many Ford owners are happy relying exclusively on their local Ford dealer," he said. "But if you want to pop the hood, the DMCA surely shouldn't stand in your way."