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Whether you’re rooting an Android phones or jailbreaking an iPhone, you’re removing the restrictions the manufacturer or cellular carrier placed on the device you own. Unfortunately, rooting, jailbreaking, and even unlocking cell phones is likely illegal in some countries.

Today we will take a look at the laws in the USA, Canada, and the European Union to figure out whether this is actually illegal or not.

Disclaimer: We’re not lawyers and this is not legal advice. We’re just geeks trying to understand what the law is and what we can legally do with the devices we own.

Legal Rooting

Note that some Android manufacturers allow you to root the device with their permission. For example, all Google’s Nexus smartphones Google Nexus 5 Review and Giveaway Google Nexus 5 Review and Giveaway Approximately a year after Google released the Nexus 4, the company behind Android has come out with its successor -- the Nexus 5. Read More and tablets allow easy, official rooting. This isn’t illegal. Many Android manufacturers and carriers block the ability to root – what’s arguably illegal is the act of circumventing these restrictions.

Apple never allows users to jailbreak its devices or install unauthorized software, so jailbreaking is always performed without Apple’s authorization.

USA

The US congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1999. Under the DMCA What Is the Digital Media Copyright Act? What Is the Digital Media Copyright Act? Read More , it’s illegal to “circumvent” digital rights management schemes.  However, there’s an exemption process that allows the Librarian of Congress to grant exemptions for specific cases.

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In the past, unlocking cell phones so they could be used on another carrier was legal, but it’s now illegal to unlock your phone without your carrier’s permission. This is due to the way the exemption process works – what’s legal today may not be legal next year when the Librarian releases a new batch of exemptions. Apple has argued against these exemptions, lobbying to make jailbreaking the iPhone a crime.

jailbreak-iphone

At the moment, it’s legal to root or jailbreak a phone if you’re doing so to use legally acquired applications on it. The exact exemption is for:

“Computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained, with computer programs on the telephone handset.” [Source]

So, you have to root or jailbreak your phone ONLY to use applications that require root access or that can only be installed from outside Apple’s App Store. If you’re rooting your phone for any other reason at all – or if you do anything else requiring root or jailbreak access – your rooting or jailbreaking is apparently illegal.

The Librarian of Congress did not provide an exemption for jailbreaking tablets, so jailbreaking an iPad is illegal, even if you’re doing it for the same reason. If you jailbreak your iPhone, you’re a consumer exercising your rights, but if you jailbreak your iPad, you’re a criminal. The same goes for rooting an Android tablet. The exemption only applies to “wireless telephone handsets,” so it’s also a crime to jailbreak a Windows RT device How to Jailbreak Your Windows RT Device and Run Unapproved Desktop Software How to Jailbreak Your Windows RT Device and Run Unapproved Desktop Software Windows RT is the locked-down version of Windows 8 for ARM computers, as seen on Microsoft's Surface RT tablet and other Windows RT devices. Windows RT doesn't allow you to install your own desktop programs.... Read More , a Kindle, or anything but a smartphone.

Canada

The Canadian government passed the Copyright Modernization Act in 2012. It makes tampering with “digital locks” illegal, with very specific exemptions for interoperability, security, privacy, encryption research, and unlocking cell phones. So, if you’re rooting your Android to run root-only software on it or jailbreaking your iPhone to install apps Apple won’t allow into the App Store 8 Ridiculous & Inconsistent Apple App Store Guidelines [Opinion] 8 Ridiculous & Inconsistent Apple App Store Guidelines [Opinion] Here’s a radical opinion - you should be able to run any apps you like on the devices you own. Apple doesn’t agree, and it’s twisted itself into pretzels creating arbitrary rules for what app... Read More , you should be okay.

On the other hand, the narrowness of the exemptions means that it’s a crime to root or jailbreak your own device for any reason that hasn’t been specifically allowed. For example, if you jailbreak your iPhone because it’s your own device and you think you should have a right to do it, you’d likely be committing a crime because this doesn’t fall under one of the narrow exemptions.

root-android-phone

However, “the Bill prohibits the sale or import of tools and services that enable hacking.” So, while rooting and jailbreaking are legal, creating a tool that satisfied these needs and selling it would be illegal.

European Union

In EU countries, this would seem to fall under the Computer Programs Directive. This directive states that:

“The unauthorised reproduction, translation, adaptation or transformation of the form of the code in which a copy of a computer program has been made available constitutes an infringement of the exclusive rights of the author. Nevertheless, circumstances may exist when such a reproduction of the code and translation of its form are indispensable to obtain the necessary infor­mation to achieve the interoperability of an indepen­dently created program with other programs. It has therefore to be considered that, in these limited circum­stances only, performance of the acts of reproduction and translation by or on behalf of a person having a right to use a copy of the program is legitimate and compatible with fair practice and must therefore be deemed not to require the authorisation of the right­ holder.”

If we’re reading this correctly, it says that rooting or jailbreaking is a violation of copyright, just as the laws in the USA and Canada do. However, it then says that rooting or jailbreaking for the purposes of “interoperability” is an exemption to this. In other words, it’s essentially “fair use” to root or jailbreak with the intent of running other, legally acquired software. This exemption is broad in some ways – and unlike in the USA, it will also apply to tablets – but narrow in others. If you’re not jailbreaking for the express purpose of interoperability, you’re violating the software authors’ copyright in the EU.

On the other hand, the directive also instructs member states to:

“provide… appropriate remedies against a person committing… any act of putting into circulation, or the possession for commercial purposes of, any means the sole intended purpose of which is to facilitate the unauthorised removal or circumvention of any technical device which may have been applied to protect a computer program.”

So it appears that creating and distributing a rooting or jailbreaking tool is illegal, even while rooting or jailbreaking itself is still allowed. The directive seems to require that everyone independently develop and create their own jailbreaking and rooting tools.

A Crime You (Probably) Won’t Be Prosecuted For

As we’ve seen, jailbreaking and rooting cell phones for the purposes of using software the manufacturer doesn’t approve of is legal in all the jurisdictions we examined. However, many other related things are illegal in some jurisdictions – unlocking cell phones, rooting or jailbreaking tablets, or bypassing restrictions for reasons other than software interoperability. Creating and distributing jailbreaking or rooting tools may also be illegal.

Now, let’s put this in perspective. First, bear in mind that these laws haven’t been tested in court, and it’s possible they’d be struck down. Second, many things we do each day are illegal. It’s been said that the average American commits three felonies a day due to the explosion of vague, broad laws criminalizing more and more things. So it’s no surprise that something as innocuous as jailbreaking or rooting is illegal.

Did you know that, in the USA, it’s illegal to break a website’s terms of service 10 Ridiculous EULA Clauses That You May Have Already Agreed To 10 Ridiculous EULA Clauses That You May Have Already Agreed To Let’s be honest, no one reads EULA's (End User Licensing Agreement) - we all just scroll down to the bottom and click "I Accept". EULAs are full of confusing legalese to make them incomprehensible to... Read More ? That’s right — under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, each website’s terms of service is given the force of law. If you visit a website and the website’s terms of service says something like “you must provide us with accurate information” and if you choose to enter incorrect personal information while creating an account, you’re now a criminal. Have you ever lied about your age on Facebook? That’s a violation of Facebook’s rules, so you’re a criminal.

Of course, you probably won’t be hauled off to jail for jailbreaking your iPad or unlocking your smartphone, just like you won’t be prosecuted for telling a white lie on Facebook. One exception is if you’re running a business — you couldn’t make a living providing a tool to jailbreak iPads or root Android phones, as the authorities would crack down on you. Another exception is if the authorities want to make an example of you, as the US government did when it prosecuted Aaron Swartz. The US government tried to send him to jail for 35 years and fine him $1 million for violating a website’s terms of service under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Some offenses under the CFAA are even punishable with life-long imprisonment. The case ended when he committed suicide.

So, should you worry about the law? No, not personally – you won’t be arrested or fined for this. But these laws are a real example of government overreach. They should be fixed before they’re used as weapons to ruin lives, as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was used against Aaron Swartz.

The Bottom Line

If nothing else, these are the kind of laws that make people lose their respect for the law. They’re pointless laws that criminalize everyday activity with no intention of actually prosecuting anyone for it or protecting consumer rights. They’re the kind of laws that make everyone a criminal in some way or another.

So, did we get something wrong? Probably. It’s likely that even lawyers, judges, and government bureaucrats can’t agree on exactly what some of these laws mean.  But we tried our best – and shouldn’t regular people be able to understand what is and isn’t illegal under the law?

Image Credit: Gavel and books Via Shutterstock, Iain Wanless on Flickr, Zach Zupancic on Flickr, Danny Choo on Flickr, Lars Ploughmann on Flickr, Daniel J. Sieradski on Flickr

  1. Eric
    February 12, 2015 at 5:56 am

    Can someone please help me. i want to know if its illegal to jailbreak in Australia. Ive been surfing the web but can't find anything. if someone knows, please reply.

    Thankyou.

  2. Rhiannon F
    June 4, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Another typically nondescript and gray filled law. I just bought a legally unlocked verizon phone. After I bought it I realized that the non-rooted OS had no provision to edit the access point name or APN and so while I easily got voice on another carrier the inability to edit the access point prevented me from having Data service, what good is a smart phone with no data service? I figured out how to root the device, downloaded two utilities for modifying the APN settings, and a third utility that had the capability of making the APN utilities system apps so they would have the necessary permissions to modify the APN settings. I also used one of the utilities to remove all sorts of carrier specific apps that would not work anyway with another carrier. I don't find any of my actions illegal. I didn't hack anybody's code or steal their copyrighted material all I did was make it possible to use an already unlocked phone with a different carrier. If you ask me it should be illegal to produce a phone that can never be modified to work with another carrier, i.e. the ability to edit APN should not have been disabled on this phone that I paid a hundred dollars for. I could have gotten a refund for the phone but I like it and it was worth it to me to go through all this extra effort, the seller insisted it's illegal to Root, I told him he is uninformed that it's a gray zone. This fiasco with this guy reminds me of the Steve Jackson games fiasco from the late 80's where a game company had their product seized because they consulted with a known hacker when writing a new game supplement book for their GURPS role playing system. All their computers and hard drives were seized and the company was nearly driven bankrupt because somebody decided they were teaching people to hack computers with their gaming rules for hacking a computer system in the game...ummm the game is all science fiction SJ games was just trying to give it a little bit of plausible reality (a lot of gamers are into that). In short some of these cases that somebody decides to "make an example of" are just ludicrous, the feds should spend their time chasing the ransomware and scareware writers not to mention the crowd in Europe responsible for the recent Target circus.

  3. AJ
    March 26, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    I don't see anything illegal with hacking your phone. I can understand that if you jailbreak or root your phone, it void the warranty so what as long as you can use the phone. Everything it illegal smoking pot, running naked, staring at someone wrong, what more can it be stepping on bugs??? They make all these stupid laws yet those that are making a living doing crimes what are they doing about them???

    • Rhiannon F
      June 4, 2014 at 4:52 am

      Agreed. If you are not rewriting or copying somebody's copyrighted code I don't think it's illegal. It's sort of like buying a pre packaged desktop computer and slipping in a better video card...that isn't illegal, rooting is no different. As long as you realize that by rooting you have voided your warranty and can no longer expect tech support you should have that right to change the product you own. Another comparable example would be buying a vehicle and upgrading the carburator or rejetting the injectors, that's not illegal either.

  4. AJ
    March 26, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    I don't see anything illegal with hacking your phone. I can understand that if you jailbreak or root your phone, it void the warranty so what as long as you can use the phone. Everything it illegal smoking pot, running naked, staring at someone wrong, what more can it be stepping on bugs??? They make all these stupid laws yet those that are making a living doing crimes what are they doing about them???

    • Shogo
      April 3, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Hacking your phone is basically illegal, because you do not own the rights over the operating system. You are allowed to use it as it is, but if you modify it in any way(jailbreak) you are breaching license. No one will prosecute you for that but it's good to know. Though you are allowed to do what you want with your device, if you change the OS they can't say anything to you, as long as you don't alter the manufacturer OS. Rooting android should be okay in most cases, if there isn't a clause about it in the EULA, since it's open source.

  5. AJ
    March 26, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    I don't see anything illegal with hacking your phone. I can understand that if you jailbreak or root your phone, it void the warranty so what as long as you can use the phone. Everything it illegal smoking pot, running naked, staring at someone wrong, what more can it be stepping on bugs??? They make all these stupid laws yet those that are making a living doing crimes what are they doing about them???

  6. Zero
    March 23, 2014 at 11:51 pm

    I'd be very helpful if you put rules of different countries/areas into a table.

  7. jelabarre
    March 21, 2014 at 12:11 am

    Actually, these days **EVERYTHING** is illegal in the USA. That way they can prosecute you on *something* if they so desire. It's how they intend to keem the masses in line.

    Of course, sometimes I wonder if *owning* a whyPhone should be illegal....

    • Chris H
      March 30, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      Yup, exactly. It's very convenient for certain people if everyone is guilty of something.

  8. JV
    March 20, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Now in Canada, Carriers are obliged by law, if you request it, to unlock your phone after 90 days usage. Of course these are always some minimal fees.

  9. Anonymous
    March 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    I live in the UK and own an iPhone brought for me in the USA. Am I supposed to follow UK/EU laws or USA laws?

    • Chris H
      March 30, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      Good question. I imagine there's no straight answer.

    • Shogo
      April 3, 2014 at 1:50 pm

      Actually there is a straight answer. You follow the laws of the country you are currently at.
      If you were born in a country where prostitution is allowed, that doesn't mean you can still do it in a country where it isn't.

      So for your question - you need to follow UK/EU laws but the US EULA is also valid for your device and services you get from Apple.

  10. Chris H
    March 20, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    It is quite legal to unlock your mobile in the UK - your network provider will do it free of charge or for a small sum, but there are others who will do it for a small sum. Also, some mobiles are sold as unlocked.

  11. Christine S
    March 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Surely Apple is surreptitiously behind the jail breaking of their systems. The number of forums, blogs, and web pages dedicated to the topic - the eager anticipation for a new jail break that accompanies each new ios update - the scrolling linux-esque text when the device is freed from the constraints its operating system.... Sounds like a brilliant marketing ploy to me.

    • K.Davies
      September 29, 2016 at 6:48 am

      I dont get what the problem is apple jailbreak their own devices and then hide the proof. So whats the bloody problem

  12. Alan
    March 19, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Everyone is so wrapped up on what is legal/illegal.
    i'll do what ever i feel like to a piece of technology i have paid $1000 for.

    • Dave P
      March 20, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Laws are rather important though. I wouldn't want to live in a world where anything goes.

      It's important to know what is legal and isn't legal, or you could end up in court for a crime you didn't know you were committing.

    • Chris H
      March 30, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      It's important to understand what's illegal so we know what laws to be outraged about. That will hopefully accomplish some change.

  13. MrX
    March 19, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    In Sweden ( EU-member ) it is legal to do whatever you want with a device you've bought. No matter what apple, Google or Microsoft put in their EULAs our constitution outranks it.

  14. dragonmouth
    March 19, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Definition of "illegal" is whatever their lawyer can prove that your's cannot disprove.

  15. palu
    March 19, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    no one gets sued or sent to jail for committing crimes in wall street... so this is irrelevant and a non-question.
    Also, Apple & Google use every trick in the book to do evade taxes... so personally its fair use to JB and hack anything they release

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