No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

Summary: VLC, the popular open-source, media player from VideoLAN has just been pulled from the Apple App Store. It won't be the last.

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Some people swore to me that just because the free-software General Public License (GPL) clashes with the Apple App Store's Terms of Service (ToS), didn't mean that Apple would actually pull down GPLed apps. Well, Apple just did. Rémi Denis-Courmont, a Linux developer and the popular VLC media player, has just announced that Apple had pulled the popular GPLed VLC media player from its App Store.

Denis-Courmont wrote, "On January 7th, Apple removed VLC media player from its application store for iDevices. Thus the incompatibility between the GNU General Public License and the AppStore terms of use is resolved--the hard way. This end should not have come to a surprise to anyone, given the precedents."

It certainly didn't come as a surprise to Denis-Courmont who pointed out that Apple's ToS conflicted with VLC's GPLv2 licensing on October 25th when he sent a formal notification of "copyright infringement … to Apple Inc. regarding distribution of the VLC media player for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. VLC media player is free software licensed solely under the terms of the open source GNU General Public License (a.k.a. GPL). Those terms are contradicted by the products usage rules of the AppStore through which Apple delivers applications to users of its mobile devices."

His action did not go over well with some other VideoLAN, the non-profit organization behind VLC, developers. As Denis-Courmont wrote at this time, "Some people have commented that this will damage the project's reputation. Maybe so. Blame those who published and/or advertised VLC for iPad. The fact of the GPL incompatibility was already well known."

You might say that Denis-Courmont was saying that "Don't ask, don't tell" is not an acceptable free-software/open-source policy in dealing with restrictive app store ToS.

Others see it in an entirely different light, The iOS VLC app was created by Applidium, a French mobile software company. In an Ars Technica interview, Applidium co-founder Romain Goyet said "The way I see it, we're not violating anyone's freedom. We worked for free, opened all our source code, and the app is available for free for anyone to download. People are enjoying a nice free and open source video player on the AppStore, and some people are trying to ruin it in the name of 'freedom.'"

Be that as it may, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) agreed with Denis-Courmont that the GPLv2 does, indeed, conflict with Apple's App Store ToS. In a note to the VLC membership list, Brett Smith, FSF Licensing Compliance Engineer, wrote that because "Apple 'only' allows you to do the activities in the list of Usage Rules, if an activity does not appear in this list, you're not allowed to do it at all."

Smith continued:

Section 6 of GPLv2 says: Each time you redistribute the Program (or any work based on the Program), the recipient automatically receives a license from the original licensor to copy, distribute or modify the Program subject to these terms and conditions. You may not impose any further restrictions on the recipients' exercise of the rights granted herein.

When the App Store terms prohibit commercial use, general distribution, and modification, these are exactly the kinds of "further restrictions" that are not allowed thanks to the last sentence here.

This is a crucial part of the GPL's copyleft. Without this section, it would be trivially easy to keep freedom away from users by putting additional requirements in a separate legal agreement, like Terms of Service or an NDA.

Section 6 is not legal minutia: if you take it away, the license would completely fail to work as designed at all.

Some VideoLAN programmers were very angry about this. In a follow-up VideoLAN mailing list post, VideoLAN association president Jean-Baptiste Kempf wrote, "With 'friends' like you, we don't need any enemies. If I understand correctly, the FSF new policy is to blow up communities?" Smith replied, "My analysis of the current terms talks about how the Usage Rules restrict distribution."

Many open-source communities will need to decide if they'd rather stick to the letter of the law of their free software licenses or work with Apple's App stores. I don't believe that Apple goes to any great trouble to check if iOS programs' software licenses are compatible with its ToS. I also can't see Apple making its ToS any friendlier to open-source licenses. As Apple has shown time and again, Apple's software policies all about control, developer freedom, as Adobe developers can attest, comes a long way second.

Apple will though , as this episode has shown, pull GPLed software off its App Store shelves if someone else brings a licensing violation to their attention. Therefore, the responsibility for enforcing the GPL will rest with organizations like the Software Freedom Law Center and the developers themselves. What they'll do with this responsibility remains to be seen.

In the meantime, iPhone, iPad, and iTouch users can continue to use MobileVLC if they've already downloaded it according to Smith. The problem is with how Apple licenses the sale of GPLv2 code to users, not with how users use GPLed programs once they're in hand.

Topics: Open Source, Apple, Software

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91 comments
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  • My guess is that,

    as mentioned near the end of the article, this has something to do with the CODEC licences needed to payback video in the VLC player. So before you all start pulling out the pitchforks and torches give this some thought.
    CowLauncher
    • no

      @CowLauncher

      No, CODECS are a completely different matter. As Smith clearly said, this is about the gpl, a license you apparently don't understand.
      Eduardo_z
      • Semantics

        Without CODECs to run visual presentations, VLC would be just an empty, useless GUI. So as a practical matter, no you can't separate the two. But the legalese out there will.
        LTV10
  • Not Suprised

    I have an iPad, and when I saw VLC up on that App Store, I said to myself not for long. So I downloaded it a few days ago. Good thing I got it <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/grin.gif" alt="grin">. Its sad to just see an app on the App store that everyone likes and loves and its taken down because it violates 1 of Apples 9 billion rules. Its like, how is this a magical device if you can't do what you want to do. Its a huge dissapointment. thats why I get the best of both worlds with an Android phone. Not as many apps, but they are way less strict on development. And that makes the apps way better.
    YippyKyYay
    • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

      @YippyKyYay: The app was pulled, not because it violates one of Apple's rules, but because it violates the one of the GPL v2 rules (at least according to Remi & Brett, others have different interpretations of the GPL rules.) Apple pulled it due a formal complaint filed by Remi. So it was at Remi's request, not due to a violation of an Apple rule.
      malexander@...
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @malexander@... <br><br>There are no different interpretations of GPL, there are only people in denial. <br><br>Apple have forbidden any kind of Free Software in their App Store, not GPL only. If you download a program and you are only allowed to make 5 copies, then that program is not Free Software, regardless of the license and availability of source code. Apple TOS puts additional restrictions on the user, and those restrictions are not compatible with either Free Software definition, nor Open Source definition. <br><br>You can put Free Software program (regardless of the license) in App store, but coming out of the app store, that program will not be Free Software because you have to obey apple TOS. GPL doesn't allow any additional restriction to be put on the user so that is violation. Other license allow, but program coming through Apple store with Apple TOS still isn't Free Software, regardless of the license. <br><br>Smartest thing to do now is not put any Free Software in App store. No Free Software can come out of App Store anyway, everything that is served to users is proprietarized first.
        gnufreex
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @gnufreex

        "There are no different interpretations of GPL, there are only people in denial.:

        Ahh... no. GPL is a legal license, and like any piece of legalise, there are ALWAYS differing interpretations of it.
        Ian.Betteridge
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @Ian.Betteridge

        Nonsense. Some legal matters are disputable, others are not, and in this is one of the latter cases.
        Eduardo_z
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        [b]Everything's[/b] disputable. It's just a matter of whether you want to hear it or not.
        LTV10
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @malexander@... Hats off... You got it!

        @gnufreex@... You are an idi*t!!!!
        Bay Area CA Male
    • Did you really read what was written? VLC did not broke any of Apples rules

      @YippyKyYay: <b>VLC was breaking FSF "rules" for which Apple does not care at all unless microsoftian (yes, he works there now) jerks like Remi Denis-Courmont write legal claims about it.</b><br><br>Apple's own rules were never broken, the application itself was totally fine.
      DDERSSS
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @denisrs
        "VLC was breaking FSF "rules" for which Apple does not care at all unless microsoftian (yes, he works there now) jerks like Remi Denis-Courmont"

        "(yes, he works there now) "
        This doesn't surprise me one bit. Microsoft is almost certainly a player in this, and may have hired him specifically to engineer this propaganda "win" against Apple.
        zato_3@...
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @denisrs agreed! Remi Denis-Courmon is a self-important tool.
        Jeffsters
      • Lies

        @denisrs

        "<i>VLC was breaking FSF "rules" for which Apple does not care at all unless <b>microsoftian (yes, he works there now)</b> jerks like Remi Denis-Courmont write legal claims about it.</i>"

        From his own page, updated January 8th, 2011:

        <i>"I am currently working as a Linux kernel and system software engineer in Helsinki, Finland. I am also one of the core developers of the VLC media player at the VideoLAN project, the original developer of Miredo, the Teredo stack for Linux & BSD, and the maintainer of the minisap server and ndisc6 IPv6 utilities."</i>

        It appears you are lying about his MS affiliations. Did you dream that up or is this just part of a cynical anti-MS trolling by feeding false information?
        honeymonster
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @denisrs and @All other Apple zealots and iMoan users:
        http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=4802335&authType=name&authToken=HfNh&locale=en_US&pvs=pp&pohelp=&trk=ppro_viewmore

        Remi works for Nokia, not for Microsoft. Not that changes anything that matters for Church of Apple religious propaganda, but the guy did the right thing and is disingenuous to imply that he has anything to do with Microsoft.
        gnufreex
      • Nokia is as impartial as it gets, true ;)))

        The subject.
        DDERSSS
  • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

    Understanding the importance of the GPL's copyleft and defending it is important. Apple is at fault... not Remi Denis-Courmont or the GPL or the FSF. This takes a perspective shift on the part of the user. The problem isn't that OpenOffice (or LibreOffice) can't perfectly open/edit/save complex MS office files -- the problem is that MS operates in a way that makes that inordinately difficult in the first place. MS office versions don't even meet that standard (2007, 2010, mac vs. windows, etc...). <br><br>That said, I've done some fairly complex things with LibreOffice in my day: obtain two graduate degrees from a relatively GNU/Linux unfriendly campus. (Almost finished with the second degree).<br><br>Place blame where it is due: Apples software policies.
    K_REY_C
    • Did you too did not actually read what was written?

      @K_REY_C: <b>VLC did not break any Apple's software policies</b>, the application was totally fine until Microsoft worker Remi Denis Courmont wrote that legal claim.
      DDERSSS
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @denisrs "VLC did not break any Apple's software policies" Agreed. Apple's software policies are restrictive enough to go against GPL'ed software (which is what the VLC license is). Apple App Store?s Terms of Service (ToS) clash w/ GPL.
        K_REY_C
      • RE: No GPL Apps for Apple's App Store

        @denisrs Someone should really fry your ass for libeling innocent people.
        SkyBon