The Digital Millennium Copyright Act outlaws attempts to "circumvent" digital rights management schemes, but Congress is able to grant exemptions to the rule. Yesterday a bunch of changes were published—making it legal to jailbreak phones, but not tablets.
Ars Technica reports that the Librarian of Congress—who has the power to grant exemptions—yesterday published a list of changes which will be in force for three years. The new rules seem arbitrary at best. Ars Technica explains:
For the next three years, you'll be allowed to jailbreak smartphones but not tablet computers. You'll be able to unlock phones purchased before January 2013 but not phones purchased after that. It will be legal to rip DVDs to use an excerpt in a documentary, but not to play it on your iPad.
The new rules kick in October 28th, and are—if we're being brutally honest—dumb. The new rules allow circumvention of "computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute lawfully obtained software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications with computer programs on the telephone handset."
But the powers that be "found significant merit to the opposition's concerns that this aspect of the proposed class was broad and ill-defined, as a wide range of devices might be considered 'tablets,' notwithstanding the significant distinctions among them in terms of the way they operate, their intended purposes, and the nature of the applications they can accommodate. For example, an e-book reading device might be considered a 'tablet,' as might a handheld video game device or a laptop computer." In other words: you can jailbreak your phone legally, but not your tablet, because, ummm, they say so.
Arbitrary distinctions exist elsewhere in the rule changes. If you're looking to unlock a phone, it must have been "originally acquired from the operator of a wireless telecommunications network or retailer no later than ninety days after the effective date of this exemption"—in other words, phones purchased after January 2013 can only be unlocked with the carrier's permission.
All of this points to the fact that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is fundamentally garbage, whose arbitrary nature makes little sense. Sadly, we're saddled with these decisions for the next three years. [Ars Technica]