Unlocking Apple's iPhone is legal, ethical, and just plain fun.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 4 2007 3:33 PM

The iPhone Freedom Fighters

Don't be afraid: Unlocking Apple's superphone is legal, ethical, and just plain fun.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Apple is not happy with its customers. Disobedient iPhone owners are unlocking their iPhones (modifying them to work with carriers other than AT&T) and installing "unauthorized" third-party apps. Last week the company struck back with a software update that acts much like a virus. It wrecks the operation of third-party applications and can turn unlocked iPhones into "bricks." Is Apple on the right side of this fight? Is it really wrong or illegal to unlock your iPhone? Well, I figured, there's only one way to find out.

Unlocking works, is doable, and improves the iPhone. But while unlocking can be fun, it's still a vaguely scary process, a little like installing your own car brakes. My project began at the giant Apple Store on New York's Fifth Avenue. I needed to buy the iPhone and figure out how to unlock it, and I had imagined that Apple's sales staff might be ambivalent or even helpful—"You really shouldn't, but …." I know that there's even discontent inside Apple headquarters, that some of the company's own employees have unlocked their phones and are complaining about Apple's Empire Strikes Back mentality.

Advertisement

My hopes were high as I approached a typically chipper Apple salesman, clad in black with spiked hair. "I'm purchasing an iPhone," I began, "but I'm a T-Mobile customer, and so I was just wondering, I read that you can unlock the phone—"

"No," he cut me off. 

"But I had read that it's possible to unlock the phone and use it—"

"You heard wrong," he said, his voice rising. "That's impossible." The tone was harsh; a few people looked over.

In the absence of friendly advice from Apple's employees, I handed over $432.42, took the phone home, and gave some thought to the legal questions. Part of the copyright code, Section 1201 of the famous Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, makes it illegal to break digital locks to get at copyrighted works. But that doesn't make unlockers criminals. The reason is an explicit exemption for personal unlocking issued by the librarian of Congress in 2006. As the librarian wrote, the locks "are used by wireless carriers to limit the ability of subscribers to switch to other carriers, a business decision that has nothing whatsoever to do with the interests protected by copyright." If that's good enough for the librarian of Congress, that's good enough for me.

It's true that the library's rule doesn't say anything about people who help you unlock your phone or "traffic" in software to do so. But its logic tracks recent case law suggesting that unlocking for compatibility, as opposed to copyright infringement, is no crime. In one case, Lexmark, a printer company, tried to prevent the use of competitors' ink-jet cartridges in its printers. In another, the manufacturer of a garage-door opener sued to block a firm marketing a "universal" remote control. In both instances the federal courts said, roughly, that the lawsuits were about blocking competition, not piracy. Without going into a full legal analysis, that's probably what a court would say if Apple sued a distributor of unlocking software. In any event, none of this is an issue for personal unlocking.

Whether you've violated your terms of service, as Apple claims, is a closer question. When you begin to use an iPhone, you agree, via an on-screen contract, that "except as … permitted by applicable law you may not … reverse engineer, [or] disassemble … the iPhone Software." Copyright allows reverse engineering for compatibility as a "fair use," so Apple has tried to create an alternative ban using fine print. Dastardly, perhaps, but also probably irrelevant. When you unlock your phone, you don't "reverse engineer" anything in the normal sense of that phrase. The contract may cause problems for authors of programs for unlocking phones, but it just doesn't seem to address personal unlocking.

Done with the law, I followed the unlocking guide prepared by Macworld's Cyrus Farivar. He took me to modmyiphone.com, the best source for detailed instructions.

This is where things get a bit tricky. Even with good instructions, activating and unlocking your iPhone isn't very easy. It's a cinch for a supergeek, but for regular humans without technical superpowers, the experience is more like, say, scuba diving: If you do everything right, you'll be fine, but you really don't want to make a mistake. That, by the way, gives AT&T and Apple a degree of protection from a major unlocking wave—unlocking an iPhone is, by my guess, something that maybe one in 20 Americans will feel comfortable doing.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The NFL Has No Business Punishing Players for Off-Field Conduct. Leave That to the Teams.

Meet the Allies the U.S. Won’t Admit It Needs in Its Fight Against ISIS

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Medical Examiner

How to Stop Ebola

Survivors might be immune. Let’s recruit them to care for the infected.

History

America in Africa

The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.

New GOP Claim: Hillary Clinton’s Wealth and Celebrity Are Tricks to Disguise Her Socialism

Why the Byzantine Hiring Process at Universities Drives Academics Batty

Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM The Fascinating Origins of Savannah, Georgia’s Distinctive Typeface
  News & Politics
History
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM America in Africa The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Education
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case  Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 23 2014 11:37 PM How to Stop Ebola Could survivors safely care for the infected?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?