Jailbreaking the iPad might void your Apple warranty and even your terms of service from AT&T, however the US government has just ruled the practice legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The exemption applies for three years until the next rulemaking review, and brings the practices of independent software developers into the mainstream.
Apple had been arguing that jailbreaking is illegal under the DMCA, since copyright protections can be circumvented when an iPad is running unofficial modifications to its operating system or unsanctioned software applications. The US Copyright Office did not agree that the only reason to jailbreak is to pirate software and violate copyright law.
The ruling explains, "When one jailbreaks a smartphone in order to make the operating system on that phone interoperable with an independently created application that has not been approved by the maker of the smartphone or the maker of its operating system, the modifications that are made purely for the purpose of such interoperability are fair uses." In other words, when you buy the device, you have the right to run whatever software you care to, no matter who developed the program.
Now that jailbreaking is no longer languishing in a legal grey area, software developers and iOS hackers can experiment and bring homegrown creativity to their tablet computers without fearing legal action from Apple. In addition, the practice of unlocking was also deemed a fair use. Limiting an iPad to one cellular data carrier does not violate copyright provisions in the DMCA either, since the only purpose is to prevent consumers from using their computer on another carrier's data network.
Will the floodgates open to a new era of alternative App Stores outside of Apple's control? Probably not, as most users would choose not to violate the warranty of their iPads. After all, Apple has created a very user-friendly closed system to deliver content. At least hobbyists and users looking for unique software that will help them get more out of their tablet computers are free to innovate without the threat of an Apple lawsuit hanging over their heads.
What remains to be seen is if any major software developers such as Adobe will risk Apple's wrath by releasing their own unsanctioned iPad software. Flash anyone?