Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

Summary: You can't sell GPL software on the Apple App Store, but you can do it on Google's Android App Store.

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Well, now we know. You can't sell software using the General Public License (GPL) on the Apple App Store& because it conflicts with its Terms of Service (ToS) . The popular VLC media player, was the first major GPLed software to be pulled from Apple's App Store, it won't be the last. But, what about Google's Android Market? I asked the experts and they tell me that, in general, GPL developers can offer their wares on Android.

I asked Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen and head of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) about whether GPLv3 programs, as well software like VLC, which is under the GPLv2, would be restricted from Apple's App Store, and he replied, "Yes. The problem isn't in the license terms. The problem is that the Apple App Store ToS for people wanting to distribute through it require that each app sold (even at price zero) must be licensed for use on a single device only. Permissively-licensed FOSS can be transacted for in the App Store, because its license can be replaced by single- device-only terms. Copylefted software can't be un-freely relicensed, so it can't be transacted for there under Apple's current ToS."

Brett Smith, the Licensing Compliance Engineer for the Free Software Foundation, agreed. "Yes, that's correct. Just like GPLv2, GPLv3 prohibits distributors from placing additional restrictions on the software through other legal documents or similar means. That's in the last paragraph of section 10."

Rob Blasi, a partner in Goodwin Procter's Technology Companies and Intellectual Property Group, added, "There are several open source licenses that prohibit re-distributors from imposing any additional restrictions on the open-source items that they have taken under that license. The GPLv3 does allow re-distributors to impose certain additional terms (e.g., disclaimers of warranties), but not the kinds of restrictions that the Free Software Foundation has taken issue with in Apple's App Store Terms of Sale."

Page 2: [What about Android?] »

What about Android?

If you want to sell your GPL-software on Android though, you should be in the clear. Moglen said, "So far as we know--and we have reviewed the Google Android market terms recently, so change would have to have occurred within the last few weeks--they do not place any limitation on how a market participant's application is licensed that would inhibit distributing Android applications in the market under copyleft licensing."

Smith agrees but added a caveat, "Some of the apps in Google's Android Market are DRMed (Digital Right Management), and Google's Terms of Service puts similar restriction on those apps. But unlike Apple's App Store, developers can choose whether or not their programs are DRMed, and the Android Market Terms of Service does not impose additional restriction on programs that are not DRMed."

Blasi added, "The Terms of Service for the Android Market have one important difference - they appear to let individual developers decide the scope of the license for users obtaining software through the Android Market. That kind of flexibility should avoid the problem that we're seeing here with the Apple App Store."

Or, to boil it down, Black Duck Software, the open-source business legal and management company, Peter Vescuso, Executive VP of marketing and business development said, software vendors and developers with a GPLed iPhone/iPad app don't have the option of selling through Apple's app store. Android developers have the flexibility to use GPL license terms, so they have that market as an option."

You could also as Stephen Walli, the technical director for the Outercurve Foundation, points out, dual-license your code as "MySQL AB used to license their software to the community as free software under the GPL while continuing to sell a proprietary closed edition of the software under a separate license." To dual-license a GPLed program you need the agreement of every copyright holder with a stake in the program.

That certainly won't happen in the case of VLC, but it's conceivable that other free software communities could do this with their GPLed programs. I see this approach as being a course that's more likely to be taken by new open-source communities working on new GPLed projects.

For most developers, though, if you're creating GPL software, you can sell it through the Android Market, but not through Apple's App Store. It's that simple. Now, if Apple changes their ToS, it would be a different story, but I think I'll see Adobe Flash in the Apple iPhone App Store before that happens.

Topics: Open Source, Android, Software Development, Software, Smartphones, Mobility, Mobile OS, iPhone, Hardware, Google, CXO, Apple, IT Employment

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43 comments
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  • Apple changes terms of service...

    ...when h3ll freezes over.<br><br>That's ok. It seals their fate. Destined to stay a niche player relative to the overall market sizes.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • I will make a prediction

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      More people care about having the latest Apple gadget than they do about having access to the latest GPL app.

      Apple's marketing budget >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> FSF's marketing budget
      NonZealot
      • GPL is a cancer

        @NonZealot

        The "open sourceness" of software should be entirely separate from a particular distribution channel used to sell it in executable form (aka App Store).

        I believe deep down a lot of people can't be happy that GPL is actively taking away rights of software designers who want to distribute binaries in a particular way, but who otherwise believe in open source. Ironic.
        croberts
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @croberts

        You don't get it, do you? Releasing under the GPL is a choice of the author. No rights are lost, because the author has the choice of whether or not to use it. As for losing your rights by including some GPL code in your application, try including some of the code from the Windows NT kernel in your application and see what happens.... You still have the choice, abide by the license, or don't use the code. This is to stop free loaders. Some people want complete control of their code and cash money, some want want to be paid by getting the improvements others make.
        grant@...
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @NonZealot

        The Application in Question is the VLC Media Player. It's a very nice application. I use it in both Windows and Linux. It plays anything. Plays it well too. If I want a play anything player on my smart phone, I will want VLC. What this means is that I don't want an iPhone. Android gives me that. In the end, it's always less about the platform, and more about what it lets you do. Android simply does more.

        I believe Steven's post was about Apple limiting its users. He is right. That may be part of the reason that with a 2 year head start, Apple is now behind Android in number of users. Apple may claim 300,000 apps to Androids mere 200,000 to Windows massive 20,000. But, Android has the 6 I want. Apple doesn't. And yes, some of those are GPL programs. For me, that's the End of Story.
        YetAnotherBob
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @NonZealot I agree. " It seals their fate" with who? The Uber nerds that care? If I guessed, 98% of the consumer market could care less about GPL.
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @NonZealot

        Really? I could care less about Apple products. I want a device that isn't controlled by a regime that's hell bent on controlling end user experiences.
        Rob.sharp
    • How many people really care if the app they downloaded is GPL?

      probally like .1% ?
      If that's the case, the benefits to Apple to [b]vastly[/b] outweigh any downside.
      John Zern
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @John Zern End-users could care less about any license. This is a developers' issue, and many of them do care a lot.

        Steven
        sjvn
      • @sjvn: Agree, but not the point

        [i]This is a developers' issue, and many of them do care a lot.[/i]

        The point is that the percentage of users who are going to ditch their iOS devices because they can't get access to GPL software is probably even less than 0.1%. I suspect that less than 0.1% of iOS device users have even heard of GPL and only a subset of those users are going to care whether or not they can download GPL software on their devices.

        I fully support the FSF (and Apple) in their attempts to keep Apple's application storefront free of GPL software. But this isn't going to hurt Apple one bit. As such, John Zern is 100% correct:
        [i]the benefits to Apple to vastly outweigh any downside.[/i]
        NonZealot
      • sjvn@..., sure the developers care

        but in the end, its the customer they're serving. The GPL developers need Apple more then Apple needs them.

        If they decide not to post their app in the Store, they're hurting themselves money-wise or whatever, as someone else will fill the void with a non GPL app.

        The customers won't miss the App at all.
        John Zern
    • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz for now Apple is the leader, but in the future they will do as you say and only be a niche player.
      Al_nyc
  • Eben Moglen is *ignorant*: bought once, works on many devices

    <b>Apple actually does not limit quantity of iOS devices on which *once* bought application can run</b> -- all you need is to synchronize (Apple, however, limits number of *computers*, to which iOS devices could be connected with library archived, up to five).<br><br>This is comment on:<br><i>"The problem is that the Apple App Store ToS for people wanting to distribute through it require that each app sold (even at price zero) must be licensed for use on a single device only. "</i>
    DDERSSS
    • I'm going to believe him over you

      @denisrs
      When denisrs, infamous ignorant Apple zealot, writes something that contradicts Eben Moglen I'm going to believe the
      [i]Columbia Law School professor ... and head of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC)[/i].

      No offense.
      NonZealot
      • You may believe in whoever, but I ran once-bought apps on at least two

        @NonZealot: devices (iPhone 4 and iPad), so Molgen is flat-out ignorant.<br><br>Not that is surprising that you believe in anything, with you being infamous Microsof zealot.

        No offence.
        DDERSSS
      • Like I said

        You are a nobody. He is a
        [i]Columbia Law School professor ... and head of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC)[/i]

        You have negative credibility. He has at worst neutral credibility.

        He wins.

        You lose.
        NonZealot
      • Facts of life have biggest credibility:

        @NonZealot: one does not have to purchase an application twice to run it on more than one iOS device -- it is as simple as that.

        Being ignorant gives Moglen negative credibility, being in denial gives you credibility, which is negative infinitely.
        DDERSSS
    • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

      @denisrs

      Calling a law professor ignorant is probably the biggest joke I've heard of today. If he's ignorant, then I should not dare to imagine what you are.

      I invite to read the ToS of the Apple App Store yourself. Ironically, you are the ignorant one in thinking that "Apple does not limit quantity of iOS devices on which *once* bought application can run". The Usage Rules specifically allows products to be used on only five Apple-authorized devices at any time.

      Secondly, the products ARE licensed to a single user, which brings us to the core problem: Apple is imposing a redundant requirement to unnecessarily restrict the type of software licenses that can be used in the App Store.
      Tble
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @Tble
        "Calling a law professor ignorant is probably the biggest joke I've heard of today."

        Not really. Obama was a Constitutional law professor, and shows his ignorance of both the Constitution and the law on a regular basis.
        hiraghm@...
      • RE: Android vs. iPhone: The GPL Question

        @Tble
        But the professor didn't say "single-user," like you just said the App Store ToS reads... He said "single device only."

        Maybe it's just a typo, but in any case, it's most obviously not true!
        lelandhendrix@...