Jailbreak your iPhone and go to jail? In the past, Apple has argued that jailbreaking an iPhone is not only a bad thing to do, but entirely illegal. The rationale: the process amounts to copyright infringement.

But yesterday brought good news for prudent (or paranoid) consumers who have hesitated to jailbreak an iPhone for fear that a SWAT team might break down their doors in the middle of the night.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Librarian of Congress gets to evaluate DMCA exemptions every three years. And this year, he has decided that a number of “classes of works” deserve to be exempted from the DMCA, which was enacted in part to prohibit the “circumvention of technology that effectively controls access to a copyrighted

The two new exemptions that apply to the jailbreaking of mobile devices read:

(2) 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.

(3) Computer programs, in the form of firmware or software, that enable used
wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telecommunications network,
when circumvention is initiated by the owner of the copy of the computer program
solely in order to connect to a wireless telecommunications network and access
to the network is authorized by the operator of the network.

In other words, so long as a consumer is jailbreaking a device to install legally-obtained applications on it, or to use the device on the network of a carrier with whom the consumer is an authorized user, a company like Apple will have no legal recourse for a copyright infringement claim. Of course, those who engage in jailbreaking still do so at their own risk.

The new DMCA exemptions won’t prevent hardware manufacturers like Apple from voiding warranties for jailbroken devices, and for many consumers, tinkering around is probably not going to produce real benefit.

But even if protecting jailbreaking isn’t going to impact a huge number of people in the United States, it’s still important that there be clarification on the subject. In this case, the U.S. Copyright Office has used the power it was granted by Congress to clarify how the DMCA should be applied as technology changes, and has used that power to make sure that consumers retain the rights to use devices they purchase as they wish. That’s how things should be.

The even better news is that the Librarian of Congress didn’t just stop with new exemptions covering jailbreaking, which has been a contentious issue but is certainly not the only controversial copyright issue being debated. A new exemption was also created that allow individuals to circumvent the DVD Content Scrambling System in the creation of new works “for the purpose of criticism or comment” (fair use), and another exemption was created that allows the circumvention of protection technologies for security testing purposes.

At the end of the day, all of these things should be beneficial for consumers and society in general, and one can only hope that three years from now, the Librarian of Congress will do what is necessary to address the new copyright-related controversies that are bound to emerge as technology evolves.

Photo credit: Gudlyf via Flickr.