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Is it legal to jailbreak a smartphone or an iPod?

Answered April 1, 2012

Is it legal to "jailbreak" an iPod?

This is a question we've gotten from a couple of listeners who seem deeply distressed that they or their kids might end up in Guantanamo Bay for modifying their electronics. To explain, "jailbreaking" is when you take an electronic item -- usually a smartphone or a high-end media player, like an iPod -- and make modifications on your own in order to get it to do things it wasn't originally programmed to do.

People do this in order to get phones to work on different networks, or to get features on their phones or other devices that aren't available as a standard from the factory.

Is it legal? Well, to put it generally, it's not illegal in the sense that the FBI would track you down and hustle you off to a maximum-security prison.

But it is usually a violation of the terms and conditions of use. On the way-far-out extreme edge of things, if you were to start offering a paid service to help other people to jailbreak their phones or media players, too, then you might -- *might* -- face a civil lawsuit if you get caught. But the manufacturer would have to think that you're causing enough economic damage to them to make it worth bringing in $200-an-hour attorneys.

In reality, for most users, if you're just looking to "jailbreak" your own items and nobody else's, then the only real consequence you'd probably face is that your warranty would be voided. It's a lot like modifying a car. If you buy a Chevy Malibu and try to convert it so it could win a stock-car race, then you can't really expect GM to cover any damage you do under the original warranty. Similarly, if you jailbreak an iPod to try to soup it up, understand that you're doing so entirely at your own risk, and that if something goes wrong, you don't have any recourse. That can be a pretty hefty gamble with something that costs a few hundred dollars brand-new from the store. But if you go into it with eyes wide open and know what you *could* be getting yourself into, then you needn't worry that the sheriff is going to show up at your front door looking to haul you away. Jailbreaking, fundamentally, is a breach of your contract with the manufacturer...but as long as you're not trying to make any money from it, and you're doing it to your own device, then you probably don't need to worry about getting fitted for an orange jumpsuit for doing it.