Digital rights watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticised Apple's developer licence agreement for the iPhone, describing several of its terms as "troubling".
The rights group obtained the iPhone Developer Programme Licence Agreement from Nasa via a US Freedom of Information Act request. Developers must accept the agreement before they can make software for Apple's handset, and the space agency had agreed to Apple's terms in order to create and release an app for the iPhone.
On Tuesday, the EFF posted a version of the agreement dating from 2009 to its website, the first time the document has been made public. It later posted the most recent version, from January 2010, which covers all iPhone OS-based devices, including the iPad and the iPod Touch.
"Overall, the Agreement is a very one-sided contract, favoring Apple at every turn. That's not unusual where end-user licence agreements are concerned (and not all the terms may ultimately be enforceable), but it's a bit of a surprise as applied to the more than 100,000 developers for the iPhone, including many large public companies," Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney with the EFF, wrote in an analysis.
The market for iPhone OS-based apps is potentially very large. In January, at the launch of the iPad tablet, Apple said that it has sold more than 75 million iPhone OS devices, including the iPhones and the iPod Touch.
Apple controls the distribution of applications for the iPhone OS via its App Store, and has been criticised by software developers over the secrecy surrounding the process by which apps are approved. In August, the company acknowledged this frustration and released details on the workings of the App Store approval system to the US Federal Communications Comission (FCC).
In his analysis, von Lohmann noted what he called "a few troubling highlights" in the licence agreement. For example, one of the terms prohibits developers from publicly discussing the agreement. The EFF attorney described this as "strange", since the terms are not defined as "confidential information" under the agreement itself.
Another section blocks developers from using other outlets if Apple bars their software from its App Store. "If you use the SDK and your app is rejected by Apple, you're prohibited from distributing it through competing app stores like Cydia or Rock Your Phone," von Lohmann wrote.
In addition, the agreement forbids reverse engineering, including "the kinds of reverse engineering for interoperability that courts have recognised as a fair use under copyright law", he added.
Developers are also barred from 'jailbreaking', or tinkering with, any Apple software or technology. This includes products that do not use the iPhone OS, such as the iPod, he noted.
"This could mean that iPhone app developers are forbidden from making iPods interoperate with open-source software, for example," von Lohmann said.
Other terms he highlighted include a provision permitting Apple to remotely disable a developer's apps, even after the software has been installed by users, and a term limiting Apple's liability to developers to $50 (£33).
"That's pretty remarkable, considering that Apple holds a developer's reputational and commercial value in its hands — it's not as though the developer can reach its existing customers anywhere else," von Lohmann wrote.
Arguing that the agreement limits "innovation and competition", the EFF attorney suggested that the solution lies in the hands of software creators and their customers. "Developers should demand better terms, and customers who love their iPhones should back them," he wrote.