Is Rooting Android Phones and Tablets Legal?
Those of you following tech news of late will have seen some rather disturbing articles that as of January 26th, 2013, it is now illegal to unlock cell phones in the US without carrier permission. We’ve been getting a lot of questions recently on how this applies to rooting, particularly as in the same DMCA rounds, many news sources have been announcing that rooting tablets is illegal. Such articles make for great shock headlines, but there is a lot of confusion and sensationalism which has caused a lot of people to get the wrong information. We have consulted with our own legal team, as well as numerous experts in the field, to try and bring some clarity to the situation.
First of all, please understand that unlocking and rooting/jailbreaking are entirely different things. The recently DMCA update, which does make it illegal to unlock a smartphone in the US without carrier permission, and carries some incredibly steep penalties, has no bearing on on rooting. The act of unlocking a phone means to remove a carrier lock in order to be able to switch providers; rooting, meanwhile, is merely a modification of the operating system permissions and has no bearing on your carrier.
Is it legal to root? Despite the scary news headlines, nothing has gotten worse in terms of making rooting illegal. The DMCA status on rooting merely did not change. The Rooting of phones has been ruled to be completely legal, and given full exemption from any prosecution under the DMCA. With tablets it gets a little more confusing, but it’s not as bad news as many sources have reported. Rooting tablets has NOT been ruled to be illegal. What has happened is they have not been given an exemption from the DMCA. What this means is that theoretically someone could file a civil case under the DMCA for rooting a tablet. The chances of this happening are extremely slim for the following reasons:
- Android tablets have existed and been rooted openly since the operating system was first created in 2009. As far as we know, there are no cases of someone being sued for it. Given that there was no change to the legal status of rooting tablets, we do not anticipate this changing
- Android has always been marketed as an open platform encouraging development and modification. Trying to ban rooting would not only be a PR nightmare for Android and the device manufacturers, it could potentially do serious harm to the brand and its long term market share. They have no incentive to do so.
- The DMCA actually wanted to provide exemption for tablets to guarantee the legality of rooting them. The only reason they did not was because the EFF failed to create a concise definition of a tablet, and the Library of Congress did not want to pass an overly broad exemption that could have unintended consequences.
- Many Android devices ship with unlocked bootloaders to encourage modification, and manufacturers such as HTC provide their own tools to unlock the bootloaders. As such, in these cases, where open development and rooting is encouraged, they are unactionable under the DMCA
- In and of itself, rooting a tablet is not illegal. Circumvention of DRM is what’s prohibited by the DMCA
Basically, what this all means, is that while there theoretically could be issues with rooting tablets, the chances are extremely slim, and there is absolutely no need to worry at least until a manufacturer actually tries to sue someone. Furthermore, given the nature of the major companies involved, I’m sure most people would agree that if anyone is going to try and sue someone for rooting a tablet, it’d be Apple.
Finally, one last question we keep being asked. Does any of this effect me if I live outside the US? In most cases, no it does not. Not only is this strictly a US ruling, many countries do have laws that explicitly allow unlocking of phones, as well as forbidding carrier locks, locked bootloaders, as well as laws that allow jailbreaking and rooting of devices.
If further information becomes available in the coming days and weeks we will update this post, but for now, it’s the same status quo as far as rooting Android devices is concerned.
What’s your opinion on the recent DMCA ruling, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments!