Licensing dispute could drive VLC out of the App Store

A potential licensing conflict raised by one of its developers could result in the popular free and open-source video player VLC being pulled from the App Store.

In addition to being free in the sense that it costs nothing, VLC is also open-source software developed collaboratively under the GNU Public License (GPL), which is designed to promote the creation of software that can be freely modified and redistributed by anyone, as long as they do so in compliance with the license.

In order to maintain the freedom of the software it protects, the GPL imposes several conditions under which redistribution may take place; in particular, the redistribution of the software must be unrestricted under any circumstance, allowing any user to give another user a functional copy under the same original terms.

According to VLC contributor Rémi Denis-Courmont, Apple’s App Store violates these terms by using digital rights management technology (DRM) that prevents a user from redistributing apps obtained from the App Store to other users in an unrestricted way. In an e-mail he sent to the VLC developer list, Denis-Courmont claims that he has filed a copyright complaint with Apple, demanding that the software be pulled from the App Store.

For its part, Apple has yet to respond in any way to the complaint and, at the time of this writing, the app was still available for download from iTunes. If the past is any indication, however, the most likely outcome is that Apple will simply pull VLC from the App Store—something that it has already done with a port of the GNU Go game.

What’s at stake?

Proponents of the GPL advocate a very specific model under which software should be written and distributed in order to protect what they claim are four fundamental freedoms: the ability to run a program for any purpose, study and understand how it works, redistribute copies to “help your neighbor,” and distribute modified copies of the software to others.

The Free Software Foundation, which has originated the GPL and tasked itself with administering and enforcing it, has been pursuing these goals with various degrees of aggressiveness, clashing along the way with both commercial software vendors—who typically want to keep as many of the rights associated with their software close to their chests—and proponents of a more relaxed and collaborative approach to software freedom, which include well-known industry luminaries like Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond, and Linux creator Linus Torvalds.

At the heart of disputes like this one is whether Apple’s distribution terms limit the freedoms imposed by the GPL because the company make it impossible for users to legally redistribute copies of the software they purchase on iTunes and because to do so Apple relies on digital rights management software, which is explicitly prohibited by recent versions of the GPL.

The Free Software Foundation’s stance is that Apple must modify the iTunes licensing terms in order for GPL software to be allowed on the App Store; for its part, Cupertino has (unsurprisingly) never commented publicly on this issue; its only response has been to pull GPL software for which it received a copyright complaint from the store.

GPL and open source

It’s important to keep in mind that the GPL is only one of many licensing choices available to those who wish to distribute their software under an open-source model. Several other licenses exist that are entirely compatible with the App Store and inclusion in commercial projects; in fact, a simple search for iPhone software on code-hosting sites like Github returns over 2000 projects that developers—both individual and corporate—are openly distributing, often under licenses that are significantly less restrictive than the GPL.

Even keeping the Free Software Foundation’s goals in mind, it is difficult to understand how forcing apps off the App Store could help the cause of free software. The average user is unlikely to blame Apple for the resulting lack of choice, and the vast majority of developers do not seem to have any licensing issue with the distribution model whatsoever, although many have reservations with the approval process and tight control that Apple keeps on the App Store—concerns that, it should be noted, Apple has begun to address cooperatively with its developer community.

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