The internet is abuzz this week with the U.S. Copyright Office’s ruling that consumers in the United States have the legal right to over-ride software that ships on their mobile devices, this to the objection of many manufacturers including Apple. While much has been said about the ruling, I’ve read very little in the way of actual implications – what will actually change as a result of this ruling?

As a tinkerer of the highest-order, I applaud assertion of this right  (though I completely fail to understand how the same office would defend a corporation’s right to patent the workings of a biological process that has been occurring in my body since birth – my legal right to fiddle with the functionality of a technology product I purchase has been reaffirmed, but not necessarily the right to tinker with organic creations of my own body – but I digress). That said, I think the actual real-world implications for most iPhone owners are next-to-none.

Despite a bit of lip-service to the contrary, Apple doesn’t really care about jail-breaking. The iPhone has been on the market going for four years, and curious users have been hacking it the entire time. The implication isn’t that Apple is capable of completely preventing hacks and has chosen not to – there is no such thing as a completely un-hackable technology product – but the simple reality is that it is probably easier to jailbreak an iPhone in 2010 than it is to install Windows 7 on the average PC. It’s just not that hard. Say what you will, but Apple employs a handful of competent of engineers who could have, at the very least, made it much more difficult to crack the phones, but for  four years have done precisely nothing  (save a single software update that disabled hacked phones briefly, and not necessarily intentionally) to that end.

All they’ve really done is stated that they consider the practice illegal. For a company that is known to pull-no-punches in court, in four years they have not issued so much as a slap on the wrist to anyone for jail-breaking a phone.  And that’s an “anyone” that includes dozens of businesses who have pioneered the practice of cracking the phones and selling them into a full-blown-worldwide-for-profit enterprise.

They have never interfered with a consumer’s actual ability to perform the hack, nor have they attempted to hold anyone responsible for doing it. Compare this to their reaction at, say, the theft of a prototype, and it becomes hard to argue that they actually care one way or the other.

For the record, and as Apple themselves have pointed out, there are a few reasons why jailbroken phones are undesirable from the carrier’s (AT&T) perspective – and if you ask me, that’s probably where Apple’s entire position on the topic originates. The common assertion that a person should have the right to install whatever they want on a device they own is hollow – it’s a device the shares resources (ie, phone networks) with other people, and so common welfare standards prevail – just like they do on roads, where rules define what you can and cannot do to your car and still continue to drive it legally.

The New York Times quotes Mark Janke, who runs a jailbreaking forum:

“I was really concerned for a while,” Mr. Janke said. “People were worried about running jailbreaking Web sites or being prosecuted for bringing their jailbroken phones into the Apple Store.”

The ruling, he said, was “a big win” for jailbreaking fans.

So, this is a big win because people no longer have to be worried? Worried about what, precisely? All the nothing that’s been going on? Another gem from the NYT piece is the assertion that all iPhone hobbyists want is a little more freedom:

But iPhone hobbyists say they simply want to have free range to use certain features and programs on their phones that Apple has limited or failed to offer.

For example, one popular unapproved application lets users sync their music and video clips with their computer over Wi-Fi, without using a cable. Another enables tethering, or the ability to share the iPhone’s Internet connection with a computer, something for which iPhone owners are supposed to pay AT&T an extra $20 a month.

If by “freedom” you mean “freedom to steal” – then perhaps this ruling does go a long way. I’m not fan of AT&T’s tethering pricing either – it’s a racket – but if the best argument presented to justify why consumers should have the ability to crack their phones is so that they can steal service from AT&T, I think the debate about “freedom” is headed in the wrong direction.

There are plenty of reasons (mostly green or plastic) why Apple doesn’t care – selling more phones is good for business. The market for locked iPhones is already saturated in the United States, and internationally they can’t keep up with demand. My guess is that Apple is betting that the majority of those purchasing jail-broken phones are simply people who can’t get a legitimate one for whatever reason, but will probably replace their illegitimate phone with a legitimate one when the opportunity presents itself. In short, outside a small contingent of die-hards, most jail-broken iPhones serve only as an advertisement to their user for the real deal, the gold standard, the legitimate iPhone. Selling two iPhones is better than one. If you further believe Apple’s  stated claims that they don’t actually profit much from sales of apps, they would have even less of a reason to be concerned with phones being jail-broken, because it literally doesn’t effect their bottom line once the phone is out the door – unless you’re thinking about bottom line benefit they see by not having to service or support a phone that is out of warranty as soon as its purchased (and jail-broken).

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