Federal warranty law protects your right to run third-party software on your electronics.
Image: Oliver Quinlan/Flickr
After I published an article about how electronics manufacturers including Microsoft and Sony illegally void the warranties of consumers who open their devices, I got a flood of emails from people wondering whether federal law protects their right to jailbreak or root their phones.
The short answer is yes, it does: Under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975, manufacturers cannot legally void your hardware warranty simply because you altered the software of an electronic device. In order to void the warranty without violating federal law, the manufacturer must prove that the modifications you made directly led to a hardware malfunction.
"They have to show that the jailbreak caused the failure. If yes, they can void your claim (not your whole warranty—just the things which flowed from your mod)," Steve Lehto, a lemon law attorney in Michigan, told me in an email. "If not, then they can't."
In practice, of course, it's all much more complicated.
How manufacturers discourage jailbreaking
Jailbreaking an iPhone or rooting an Android phone gives the user the ability to install custom operating systems that are not approved by device manufacturers or carriers. This allows the consumer more control over which programs can be installed—a jailbroken iPhone can run software not approved for download in the App Store, and a rooted Android phone gives the user "root" access to delete "bloatware" that was installed by the device's manufacturer or their wireless carrier.
Manufacturers don't like it when you root or jailbreak your device, because they lose control over the ecosystem you're working in. They argue that a phone with a third-party operating system might have shorter battery life, security vulnerabilities, may break some of the phone's software features, and can allow users to install pirated or unauthorized software.
For years, cell phone manufacturers fought to make jailbreaking a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Librarian of Congress granted a DMCA exemption for phone jailbreakers in 2010 and made jailbreaking tablets and smart TVs legal last year. It is still generally illegal to jailbreak game consoles, because the Librarian of Congress ruled that jailbroken game consoles are almost exclusively used to play pirated games.
After losing the DMCA fight, cell phone manufacturers tried a different tactic to dissuade users from jailbreaking their phones: They strongly implied or outright said that jailbreaking your device would void the manufacturer's warranty.
After the 2010 exemption was granted, Apple's official response was that "the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones as this can violate the warranty." Apple's official warranty language notes that the warranty "does not apply … to an Apple Product that has been modified to alter functionality or capability without the written permission of Apple."
Apple has also set up a page warning about the problems jailbreaking can cause and noting that "unauthorized modification of iOS is a violation of the iOS end-user software license agreement and because of this, Apple may deny service for an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch that has installed any unauthorized software."
Samsung, meanwhile, notes in its Galaxy S7 warranty agreement that "defects or damage resulting from improper testing, operation, maintenance, installation, service, or adjustment not furnished or approved by SAMSUNG, including but not limited to installation of unauthorized software and unauthorized root access, both of which shall void this limited warranty."
The wording of Samsung's agreement is cagey and grammatically confusing on purpose: "Shall" rooting the phone void the warranty always or only when it results in damage to the phone?
"Manufacturers threaten to do things they cannot do legally but 99.9 percent of consumers have no idea of their actual rights," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told me.
She's right: Android and iPhone forums are filled with people asking questions about whether rooting or jailbreaking a phone voids the warranty; inevitably, the answer that comes from the community is "yes."
Jailbreaking is protected under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act
The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, passed by Congress in 1975, notes that "a warrantor cannot, as a matter of law, avoid liability under a written warranty where a defect is unrelated to the use by a consumer of 'unauthorized' articles or service."
The Federal Trade Commission has previously interpreted this language to mean that modifications to devices are protected under the act, as long as those modifications do not cause the specific damage that the consumer wants to get repaired. Let's say, then, that you decide to jailbreak your iPhone. If the headphone jack then breaks, Apple can't legally refuse to fix your phone because you jailbroke it.
"You can think of the software as a device that's similar to a hardware component. If you swap it, the warranty on the software is not valid anymore, but the warranty on the hardware should continue to be fine," Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, told me.
Apple isn't wrong in suggesting that it is possible to cause damage to the hardware of a device by jailbreaking it. Let's take a straightforward example: If you overclock your computer, you're changing the software controls over the processor. If it overheats, you aren't going to be able to claim the manufacturer should fix it under warranty.
(As a complete aside to all of this: There are increasingly fewer compelling reasons to jailbreak or root your phone these days. iOS has slowly but surely implemented many of the features included on custom operating systems, including third-party keyboards and enhanced lock screens. Google's Nexus program, meanwhile, has made it possible to get "stock" Android on a variety of different phones. Manufacturers' claims about security are absolutely true—jailbroken iPhones don't immediately get critical security updates. That said, there are still legitimate reasons to jailbreak or root your phone or your other electronics, and having to worry about it voiding your warranty is nonsense.)
It's unclear how often manufacturers actually try to void a warranty on a jailbroken phone. There have been success stories posted online by people who have gotten their jailbroken and rooted phones fixed under warranty. Rooting and jailbreaking are almost always reversible—if the phone is still functioning at all, it should be possible to simply reinstall a stock version of the operating system and take it in for service (some manufacturers, such as Samsung, have installed software triggers that are supposed to detect modifications to the operating system; some rooters say they can bypass these triggers).
Apple did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story; Samsung did not respond to a request for comment, either. As far as I can tell, OnePlus is the only major cell phone manufacturer that explicitly notes that rooting your phone does not void the warranty.
An FTC official told me that jailbreaking should not void the warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, but would not commit to taking any sort of action about the practice.
"The real problem is one of practicality. You can be 'right' but what happens if they deny your claim anyway?"
How it all plays out
The larger problem is that manufacturers have no real incentive to change their practices, because this stuff is generally small potatoes that gets ignored by the FTC. The FTC has previously gone after BMW for illegal warranty practices that required Mini Cooper customers to take their cars in for routine maintenance only at authorized shops, but even that case was eventually settled with no fine. Cars are, obviously, more expensive than iPhones.
It's too costly for any individual consumer to pursue a legal case against an electronics manufacturer; knowing the law might help you get your device repaired, but then again, it might not.
And, in the real world, manufacturers can probably continue to get away with voiding warranties on jailbroken phones if they want to.
"The real problem is one of practicality. You can be 'right' but what happens if they deny your claim anyway? You would be forced to sue to get them to either honor the warranty or compensate you for their breach," Lehto wrote to me in the email. "The cost of the suit could be prohibitive, placing you in that weird gray area where 1) you are right but 2) you cannot do anything about it. Which is the functional equivalent of being wrong. After all, what is the difference?"
"You can cuddle your broken phone knowing that your cause is righteous even if the phone will never work again," he continued. "If you can reverse the jailbreak without harm, do it before you seek warranty help."