Sep 5, 2007

Unlocking your iPhone - Legal or not?

It has been some time since I put my last post. Six months, to be more accurate. And so much has happened in this time that I can't even begin to describe what. Google has bought over Doubleclick in a multi-billion dollar deal, the iPhone has finally come out (and promptly unlocked, I must add), Opera Mini 4 is in beta, millions of blogs have started since, and a lot many abandoned. Wow, and I haven't even scraped the surface yet.

Let us get back to the iPhone. I have said this once, and I will say it again - Apple is a master marketer. Their phone is not the first to have touch screen, nor is it the only smartphone with music capabilities by a long shot. Heck, it doesn't even have 3G. Still, you find thousands of people waiting in serpentine queues to get hold of the sleek black gadget. Pretty impressive for a commodity product, which is also tied to AT&T as the sole service provider. But then again, Apple has succeeded in setting up the iPhone as "the" product, and not a commodity after all.

Now to the whole unlocking the iPhone issue. Hacker groups across the world would have been working tirelessly to crack open the iPhone's lock to the AT&T network, ever since the product was unveiled late June. It is to Apple's credit that it took them so long to break open the lock; most hardware and software protection technologies have fallen in a few days' time. However, once the first method came in, others have followed pretty rapidly. Both hardware and software workarounds have been devised, independently confirmed by leading websites.

So the question is, would unlocking the iPhone be legal? If AT&T has not subsidised the cost of the handset from Apple to the subscriber, then surely this is between the user and Apple, isn't it? Or is it? What business is it of AT&T's to check what a user does with a phone she has bought from Apple? Seems like a pretty grey area even for the legal pundits, and as for me, I am still left wondering. However, if you go by common sense, what I do with hardware I have bought is nobody else's business, not even the company I bought it from. I could buy an iPhone and use it on AT&T network or choose not to, use it as a very expensive doorstop or simply put it in a blender and run the motor. Most product warranties would be void if you do any of the above three things, but wouldn't I still be legally entitled to do this? The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has explicitly cleared unlocking phones as long as they are used for legally connecting to a network.

Apple would probably be forced to go after these unlocked iPhones as per their agreement with AT&T and they would probably have the law on their side if the unlocking is being done on a commercial basis (in which case the above DMCA protection might not hold). But what is to stop a hacker group from releasing software on the Net which anybody can download and run on their iPhones to get them unlocked? Would it be still piracy or abuse of Apple/AT&T's IP rights?

The legal muscle of two of America's biggest companies might thwart most outfits hoping to profit out of the whole unlocking debacle, but if you are smart enough to unlock your own iPhone, you just might get away with it. But don't take my word for it, decide for yourself.


Update: Apple has announced a $200 price cut on the iPhone, in less than 10 weeks of the launch. All tech devices get better, faster and cheaper with time, but this one is phenomenal! CNET article

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