By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
July 27, 2010

There may be less to the Copyright Office’s iPhone ruling than meets the eye

If you pay full price for a piece of hardware — say an iPhone — it seems only fair that you should be able to do with it whatever you want. Hit it with hammer. Drop it in a blender. Mess with its operating system. You bought it. You own it.

The cat-and-mouse game hackers have been playing with Apple (AAPL) for the past three years — jailbreaking the each new version of the iPhone OS to run unauthorized third-party programs — always seemed just that: a game.

The company could hardly be expected to honor warranties for a deliberately broken iPhone. But it was equally hard to see the logic by which it could seek to impose a $2,500 fine under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Not that it ever did.

But it’s been locked in battle with the Electronic Frontier Foundation over its right to do so. The EFF, as only seems right, won. The Copyright Office on Monday issued a fair use exemption that explicitly states what common sense suggests: jailbreaking an iPhone is not illegal.

The Copyright Office issued a total of six exemptions Monday. We suspect that the one allowing YouTubers and other video artists to rip and mix short sections of copy-protected DVDs will, in the long run, prove far more significant.

The text of the rulemaking order is available here: The EFF’s commentary is here.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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