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Friday, September 28, 2007

iPhone bricking is DRM run amock

You've probably heard about how some people are taking their new iPhones and hacking them so that they can use carriers other than AT&T, run "third-party" software not approved by Apple, etc. Many or most (maybe all) of these folks are suddenly lugging around very expensive "bricks", because this week Apple released an update for the iPhone that is disabling such modified phones.

I took a looksee through the licensing agreement for the iPhone. The thing is Digital Rights Management from Hell. From my understanding of the agreement, buying and using an iPhone is lifetime indentured loyalty to AT&T, if you want to keep using it. That's beyond the initial two-year service agreement.

In light of my own recent experience with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it sure looks like Apple saw the rights afforded to people by the DMCA if they attempted to circumvent the software and contract, and tried their damndest to do an end-run around that.

Whatever happened to the days when you bough something, and you were free to use it however you wished, so long as you didn't use it to kill someone or otherwise deprive them of their rights? I mean, if you bought an iPhone you own the physical unit. You should be perfectly free to use another carrier or run your own software, or whatever. But if another private party dictates the terms under which you can use it, then it is not really yours at all. You just paid a hefty licensing fee for the rights to use the iPhone per Apple's conditions... but per the strictest definition of "property", you don't own it.

Some will probably say that people hacking their iPhones is analogous to how twenty years ago, some folks used to tamper with their cable boxes to get extra channels without having to pay for them. But it's not the same thing at all. With cable box tampering, the tangible product in question was the television signal itself: people were stealing something that did not legally belong to them. iPhone hacking involves a physical product that the consumer has fully paid an agreed-upon price for: legally - if it's understood that the iPhone is the property of the consumer - the purchaser would have the right to modify the iPhone.

(And no, it's not even the same as the situation with modified Xbox 360s either, since Microsoft only prevents altered 360s from using the Xbox Live service: a situation paralleling that of tampered cable boxes. So far as I know Microsoft hasn't physically "bricked" any modded Xbox 360s.)

It comes down to this: is the iPhone the property of the one who purchases it, or is it the property of Apple?

Hard to believe that the same Steve Jobs who came up with the idea of selling an Apple 1 made of pieced-together parts is now three decades later discouraging others from playing and hacking around with technology.