What it means to ‘Jailbreak’ a Fire TV or Firestick and how it relates to Rooting, Sideloading, and the law

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.

17 comments
  1. Gene says:

    Sure maybe my opinion is biased but I don’t think those people should have been arrested the way they were. Sure I think it’s a sleepy move to mark up the prices so much higher for simply installed some apps which can easily be done by anyone, but they weren’t the ones streaming pirated content and shouldn’t be liable for what someone else (the end user) decides to do with it. Should gun shops be held liable for what someone does with guns if they alter them in a manner that makes them fully automatic?

    • Jon says:

      When you sell a gun to someone who you know is going to use it in an illegal manor, then yes you should be held responsible. Just like when you sell a streaming stick to someone preloaded with piracy apps, so you know it is going to be used in an illegal manor, you absolutely should be held responsible.

      • Red says:

        They must not be to the manner born. ;)

      • MR Porter says:

        You are absolutely right. Sheriff Judd is an idiot scumbag publicity whore. This case will be rightfully thrown out and I hope those wrongly arrested sue that piece of trash for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that Polk countians vote that human pile of feces out.

      • MR Porter says:

        Who exactly are you to know the minds of anyone else. You are hardly psychic. No laws have been broken by performing this action. Thoughtcrime is not a prosecutable offense. For all you know users are watching films in the public domain.Just because you have a larcenous heart, don’t attach your morals to others

    • Keith says:

      It was a political stunt on the part of the local sheriff to get some free publicity. Note that they didn’t go after the thousands of people that sell this stuff on Craigslist (the primary source of sideloaded Fire TV devices). That would take too much effort and get them minimal publicity.

    • Mark MacLachlan says:

      If you know someone intends to commit a crime with a gun and you sell it to them, then you are an accessory to that crime and can be charged.

      While there are certainly superficial comparisons, these two things are entirely different since the gun scenario can end up in death. Demonstrate how streaming could kill someone and I will agree with you.

      • Jon says:

        I know I sound like the bad guy, I expected that before I left my post. I also know that killing someone and piracy are not even close to the same thing. Honestly I dont really mind if you are pirating content, you are mostly not hurting anyone. I was simply pointing out that his analogy was flawed, and on a personal note I do think if they are going to go after people in the piracy business it should be those in the piracy business. It is one thing to watch a movie without paying for it, it is something totally different to sell stolen goods/profit off piracy.

  2. david ghelkin says:

    Most people get this info from youtube/tutorial. Youtubers should be the one’s responsible for this action as they are showing the public how to modify these devices. Why not go after those youtubers that created this content.

  3. Stan Fraze says:

    Jailbroken firesticks are advertised on craiglist and offerup, and streaming is not illegal. Soon the internet will be illegal.

  4. Shirley Dulcey says:

    Sideloading can also be done for legal reasons, as regular readers of this blog already know. Currently it’s the only way to get the Peacock TV app on a Fire TV, and until November it was the only want to get the HBO Max app. Receiving those services is legal for subscribers, but they did not have an agreement with Amazon to put their apps on the Amazon Appstore.

  5. TechyChris says:

    Jailbreak is a ridiculous term created by greedy, uneducated youtubers looking to line their pockets with clickbait cash. Android (which Amazon OS is based on) is an open source platform, it’s sad that whenever anyone discusses installing apps outside the original OS App Store EVERYONE automatically screams piracy! I use Peacock TV, Steam Link and Xfinity Stream (The TV Go version not the new Amazon one). NONE are available in the Amazon App store and NONE are illegal. I have subscriptions and the rights to use each of them.

  6. nate kane says:

    The suspects were identified as 71-year-old Lorinda Marlene Holm, 88-year-old Bongwoo Roe, 34-year-old Luis Gabriel Vazquez, and 59-year-old Grace Yarbrough. They should never have been arrested. Maybe civilly charged under a consumer protection charge. I live in Florida and the Polk County sheriffs office generally does a very good job in advertising their success statewide. They and the media made this sound like they just broke up a Eastern European cyber hacking ring. I doubt that two of those charged couldn’t even turn on a firestick.

  7. Tony says:

    All these stream programs and HBO, CINAMAX,and direct tv, spectrum, are all a RIP off. Read a book, go exercise.
    Your just paying for reruns. Year after year. For high amounts of money.
    Let’s all boycott these subscription media outlets. Their pockets ate getting fat with your hard earned money on reruns

  8. Nate says:

    Not much to add to the conversation here, aside from the fact that I am glad someone is finally calling out the misnomer of “jailbreaking” an Android device. In the purest use of that definition, it is limited only to Apple products; “rooting” is the equivalent of an Android device. I agree with other commenters here that the term has been hijacked by those pushing piracy apps as a means to garner attention from potential customers.

  9. Mark MacLachlan says:

    My understanding of the way the current streaming laws are written is that it is not illegal to stream so long as you do not download (which is piracy) and do not charge anyone to watch (also piracy). The act of having a program that can potentially access protected content while also being able to access free content in the same manner isn’t illegal. The only way for law enforcement to even suspect you in your home would be if they are monitoring your traffic. That is why it is recommended to use a VPN to encrypt that traffic. Just prevent them from spying on you no matter what you are doing.

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