In a review of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, also known as the DMCA, that first made it legal to jailbreak devices, the U.S. Copyright Office has now made definitions of copyright laws that limit the benefits to owners of smartphones and tablets. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, owners of smartphones may continue to legally jailbreak or root their devices, but that protection doesn’t extend to tablets.
According to Wired, the Office feels that extending a blanket coverage to tablets would be dangerous as tablets are beginning to encompass more categories of devices, from large handheld portable game consoles to e-readers. However, given that smartphones with increasing displays–like the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II–and smaller sized tablets are beginning to converge, it’s unclear where the Office’s arbitrary delineation of categories begin and end.
And though it may be legal still to jailbreak smartphones according to the DMCA, users who do so may still void their warranties and manufacturers and carriers often do not support devices with tampered or altered software.
Additionally, unlocking phones–also known as SIM unlocking–may require the blessing of the carriers themselves. According to the Office, users are given a license to use the software on their devices, not given the right to own said software. Hence, users will need permission from the software owners, or the carriers, to legally unlock a smartphone beginning on January 1, 2013.
The difference between jailbreaking/rooting and unlocking are mainly that the latter applies to special code that ties the phone’s or tablet’s hardware to a particular carrier. As carriers in the U.S. subsidize devices in exchange for a two-year contract, those carriers would want users to remain with them for at least two years and locking a device would make it difficult for users to switch to a different carrier and reuse the same equipment. A simple code can be issued to unlock the phone to operate on a different carrier and used with a different SIM card.
Jailbreaking or rooting, on the other hand, expands the software restrictions of a device. For instance, some carriers may ban tethering or not allow a certain video app to stream over its 3G/4G network. Jailbreaking would allow a user to remove those restrictions and further customize their devices to their own choosing.