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EFF seeks shelter for iPhone mobile 'jailbreakers'

Freedom to tinker

Yesterday, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) - that 18-year digital-freedom superhero - filed a pair of petitions with the United States Copyright Office, seeking to protect mobile-phone jailbreakers, unlockers, and digital-media masher-uppers from the slings and arrows of outrageous lawsuits.

According to a statement by EFF lawyer Fred von Lohmann, the petitions ask the Office to provide exemptions from the DMCA's strictures against "three categories of activities that do not violate copyright laws, but that are still jeopardized by the DMCA's ban on bypassing technical protection measures used to control access to copyrighted works."

The beneficiaries of the EFF petitions would include:

  • iPhone Mobile phone owners who want access to applications not provided by Apple their phone's manufacturer or service provider.
  • Individual or commercial entities that want the freedom to use their phones with any service provider that they damn well please.
  • Non-commercial DVD rippers who want to use copyrighted content for purposes of fair-use commentary.

The two mobile-phone exemptions are, according to von Lohmann, intended to protect your "freedom to tinker" with a product that you rightfully own. In addition to allowing the freedom to install any app that you see fit on your phone, the petition requests the Office to provide companies such as The Wireless Alliance, ReCellular, and Flipswap with the legal protection they need to continue to accept used phones and unlock them for sale either to frugal statesiders or into third-world countries where the phones' original service providers may not operate.

The DVD-ripping exemption would extend the long-accepted fair-use doctrine to include using copyrighted clips for non-commercial mixes, whether they be for social or political commentary, educational purposes, or other uses. As von Lohmann persuasively argues, "Today, if you rip a DVD, the MPAA takes the position that you've broken the law, even if you are making a video that comments on the latent racism in Disney films or the sexualized violence in 300" [NSFW].

Exemptions to the DMCA are not new. In 2006, the Office granted six exemptions that began to pry loose some of the more restrictive aspects of the DMCA. Unfortunately, those exemptions were of little benefit to the average consumer — a failing that EFF hopes to mitigate with their latest petitions.

Arguments for and against the new petitions are due to the Office by February 2, 2009. Hearings will be held in the spring, and the Office will announce its decisions in October, when the previous set of exemptions expires.

If you plan to create a video that'll argue your case for or against the proposed exemptions, we recommend that you not rip any copyrighted DVD content for use in it. By 2010, it may be safe to do so — but for now you'd still be opening yourself up to a lawsuit. ®

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