There are many terms, such as Jailbreaking, Rooting, Sideloading, and Unlocking, that are used to describe the state of an Amazon Fire TV device and the changes made to it. While each term has a unique definition, they are often incorrectly interchanged and used to describe some type of software modification done to a Fire TV. Questions often arise regarding the legality of each term and each type of software modification. Since Jailbreaking arrests are in the news this week and a new bill may make illegal streaming a felony, it’s as good a time as ever to break down what these terms mean and, more importantly, how they’re used.
I am not a lawyer and this information is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter.
With regard to a Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Cube, or Fire TV Edition television, all of these terms are generally used to indicate that something has been done to modify the software of the device after it has been purchased. While I’ll be explaining what each term actually means, keep in mind that knowing these definitions is not enough to understand what someone is referring to when using them because they all get misused so often.
The most confusing and misused term for Fire TVs is Jailbreak because it actually does not have a definitive meaning when used to describe a Fire TV. The term Jailbreak most commonly refers to modifying the user permissions of an iPhone in order to make software changes that Apple does not normally allow. By that context, saying a Fire TV is jailbroken should be considered equivalent to saying that the device has been rooted, which does have a definitive meaning that I’ll discuss shortly, but it is hardly ever used that way.
Even though it is technically incorrect, more often than not, when someone says a Fire TV is jailbroken, they usually just mean that it has been preloaded with software that is not available in the official Amazon Appstore. That software is usually not available from the Amazon Appstore because it provides access to pirated content that is being made available without the permission of the copyright holder. Accessing content in this manner is illegal in many countries, so this is why a Fire TV described as being jailbroken is often discussed in the context of breaking the law, even though jailbreaking/rooting/sideloading/unlocking a device is generally not illegal on its own.
Rooting a Fire TV means that the device’s software has been modified to grant access to parts of the operating system that normally cannot be modified. Amazon, like nearly all Android device manufactures, does not willingly provide a way for their devices to be rooted so that users don’t inadvertently make irreversible changes to the device that breaks the device. This is common practice for most Android devices so that all user changes can be reverted by factory resetting the device.
Rooting a Fire TV is done by taking advantage of a software mistake, usually referred to as an exploit, that allows access to parts of the operating system that shouldn’t be possible. It is among the rarest and most technically difficult changes that can be done to a Fire TV. Like jailbreaking, the terms rooting and rooted are also often misused to describe a Fire TV that simply has been preloaded with apps that are not available in the Amazon Appstore.
Unlocking a Fire TV should technically refer to unlocking the device’s bootloader. Without getting into the details too much, doing so provides the ability to change pretty much any part of the device’s software. This is the rarest modification that can be done to a Fire TV and, as with rooting, can only be achieved by taking advantage of a mistake done by Amazon. For this reason, the majority of Fire TVs described as being unlocked are likely using the term incorrectly.
Lastly, we come to the term Sideloading, which is simply the act of installing an app on the Fire TV that is from somewhere other than the Amazon Appstore. This is the only thing discussed so far that is openly allowed by Amazon because it is how an app developer can test their app on a Fire TV before submitting it for approval in the Amazon Appstore. In reality, most of the time when someone says a Fire TV has been jailbroken, rooted, or unlocked, what they actually mean is that it has been sideloaded with apps that are not in the Amazon Appstore.
While there is absolutely nothing illegal about sideloading apps on a Fire TV, there are many piracy apps that are considered illegal to use in many countries and these apps can only be installed on a Fire TV by sideloading because Amazon does not allow them in the Amazon Appstore for obvious reasons. The acts of jailbreaking, rooting, unlocking, and sideloading alone, by their proper definitions, are not against the law. It is what is done with the device afterward that can be illegal.