Unlocking an iPhone is legal

Copyright scholar Tim Wu has a great little piece on Slate about the legality of iPhone unlocking. Bottom line: it's legal and it's fun!
Did I do anything wrong? When you buy an iPhone, Apple might argue that you've made an implicit promise to become an AT&T customer. But I did no such thing. I told the employees at the Apple Store that I wanted to unlock it, and at no stage of the purchasing process did I explicitly agree to be an AT&T customer. There was no sneakiness; I just did something they didn't like.

Meanwhile, lest we forget, I did just throw down more than $400 for this little toy. I'm no property-rights freak, but that iPhone is now my personal property, and that ought to stand for something. General Motors advises its customers to use "genuine parts," but it can't force you to buy gas from Exxon. Honda probably hates it when you put some crazy spoiler on your Civic, but no one says it's illegal or wrong.

The worst thing that you can say about me is that I've messed with Apple's right to run its business exactly the way it wants. But to my mind, that's not a right you get in the free market or in our legal system. Instead, Apple is facing trade-offs rightly beyond its control. When people unlock phones, Apple loses revenue it was hoping for, but also gains customers who would have never bought an iPhone in the first place. That's life.



  1. This is much like the hoorah over modchipping the XBOX.

    Yes, modchipping CAN let one play pirated games.

    But for the most part, it’s done to unlock the XBOX so the OWNER of the XBOX can do with HIS/HER property as they see fit. Usually just toomake it easier to install Linux or the XBox Media Center and use XBMC with things like remote controls or wireless keyboards/mice.

    (And of course, modchipping an XBOX makes the Baby Bill Gates cry. ALWAYS a valid reason for doing something!)

    And now, unlocking an iPhone is done for the same reasons. It’s MY property, Steve. I can do with it as I see fit.

  2. its even less shady than the X-box.

    So far theres nothing to really steal with the iphone. The programs you can add have so far been free to all. they could argue you’re “Stealing ringtomes” from apple because you’re not buying the track twice… but they’d be dumb to make such an argument.

  3. This is the strawiest straw-man that ever straw-manned. No-one has suggested that unlocking an iPhone is illegal. No-one!

    Apple has just said that, should you do it, they won’t support you with future upgrades or warranties. Which is a fair deal all round.

  4. People, people…

    Who told you that you couldn’t unlock your iPhone? When did Apple ever state anything like that?

    All they said was, if you unlock it, the software update may render it useless, and you’ll be voiding your warranty. So if you want to be a 1337 hacker and unlock your iPhone, go nuts. But don’t expect software updates or warranty service.

    Simple, no?

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  6. I suspect that Apple are overjoyed when customers chip their iphones. Even more so if they brick them and buy a replacement.

    AT&T might be sad. But Apple just signed an agreement with them to attept to make their customers stick with AT&T – that doesn’t mean that they give a damn whether you do.

    Is the iPhone 2 out yet? Never buy a version 1 product.

  7. Will people please stop using the phrase “free-market” when describing the U.S. economy (or any other current economy in the Western world for that matter). The U.S. economy is not a free-market economy; need I really cite one of the million forms of government economic regulation that currently exists? It is particularly sad that even apparently educated people have been brainwashed to perpetuate this myth.

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