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VLC on Thin Ice at the App Store?

According to our friends over at the Free Software Foundation, VLC Developer Rémi Denis-Courmont recently sent Apple (s aapl) “a formal notice of copyright infringement” concerning the VLC Media Player iOS application. Rémi, who contributed a fair amount of work to the desktop version, finds fault with the app’s distribution in violation of the terms and conditions of its GNU General Public License (GPL).

Applidium, developer of the iOS app, first submitted it back in September as an iPad-only app. At the time, there was some question as to whether or not it would be accepted, but ultimately it was, and it even got an update in October to work on the iPhone as well. Although Applidium does make the source code for the iOS application available for public use, distributing it through the App Store still violates the specific wording of the license:

“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.”

According to the terms of the GPL, distributors may not impose additional restrictions on recipients of licensed software beyond those terms laid out in the original license. Apple adds its own DRM and usage rules for every application distributed via the App Store, so it’s a clear violation. The whole idea of the GPL is that each time a licensed program is distributed, the recipient has the same rights to modify and redistribute that work under the same terms and conditions.

How will Apple react? More than likely, it will pull VLC from the App Store, as it did when a similar problem cropped up several months ago regarding an iPhone port of GNU Go. In that situation, Apple refused to modify its terms of service to account for applied GPL, and instead simply removed the app from the store.

If you haven’t yet grabbed your own copy of VLC for iOS (which is free), I’d suggest you do it soon. While I applaud Rémi for having the courage to stick to his principles, the spoiled child in me mourns for the loss of a great iOS application. Ultimately I think he’s right, though. VLC owes a lot of its success to the fact that it’s open source. I’d hate to see its success as a desktop application harmed by an ill-fated attempt to distribute it under iOS. On the other hand, I’ve already got my copy anyway.

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13 Responses to “VLC on Thin Ice at the App Store?”

  1. fuuuuuuuuu...

    You’ve already got your copy ? You’re a moron, this version doesn’t have access to hardware acceleration, thus is useless on HD content… One of the really nice thing would be to see an app with this functionality, and eventually Apple could have relented and pulled up an API out of its ass like it did on the mac for a restricted subset of GPU.
    Now what ? We get nothing, because of this moronic licensing feud.VLC was a good candidate to push things further on the front of video playing on iPhone, damnit !!

  2. What a bunch of crybabies. What gives Apple the right to modify an App in violation of the license. What do you think apple would do if you modified their software in violation of there license terms.

    If you have a beef, put the blame where it belongs, with the control freaks at Apple.

    • By the letter of the law Apple is violating the license, I don’t deny that. I think this is why the GPL needs to be amended to take distribution models such as the app store into account. App stores aren’t going to go away anytime soon. While it does attach DRM, for a free app the app store for all intents and purposes only serves as an installer. Anyone can go and download it. Having said that I do wish Apple gave developers the option of opting out of DRM.

      If this becomes a religious war then open source loses, Apple isn’t going to back down and the average consumer is going to pick the simplicity of the app store every time.

  3. I guess Apple is the one who has to revise its models. Apple’s approach is really fascist and totally opposed to the GPL license. Innovation gets harmed by Apple’s authorization rules and DRM system and not by FSF.

    • Why should apple have to revise their policy?

      I’m sure that nearly all smart phones will force DRM in the near future to help protect devs.

      The GPL license needs to be changed to accommodate the future and accept that there will be DRM on mobile devices and make clauses to reflect that.

      If the source isn’t released, go after the dev to release it.

      • I don’t see any Android phones following the DRM policy, but on the contrary they head on the open source philosophy, while they gain ground constantly.

        It’s like the Flash – HTML5 war. Which side did you there?

        Whatever the outcome is, I think the users have to decide the software they use without having to jailbreak their device. I wouldn’t like my Mac’s only source of software being an AppStore.

    • I’m always for open standards, not closed as Flash is. Sure while Apple my be spearheading the movement to HTML5, it’s a good move for all companies to embrace.

      Android is only almost more open than Apple is by a hair. Google exerts a lot of control on their OS as well as caving to pressure from the telco who lock down the OS as bad as Apple does. Rooting or Jailbreaking, Kettle meet pot.

      98% of the users don’t care, most aren’t technical enough to give a crap either way. They’re all “DRM What?”

      As for Google’s DRM, their ‘licensing service’ is just that and I’m sure it’ll be mandatory one day. I haven’t read much on it.

  4. Let me get this right. Soon, users won’t be free to get a copy of a Free Software Foundation application for their iPhones because rules developed a decade and more ago for distributing software to desktop computers are being violated, rules that seem to assume that every iPhone user is ready, willing and able to recode and branch their own version of VLC.

    Like Black and Ian before me, I suspect the Free Software Foundation needs to tweak their policies for apps running on mobile devices. I may get mad if my iMac crashes and I have to reboot, or even use my laptop until I can fix the problem. But I simply can’t afford to have my iPhone crashing, shutting off all phone contact with the world.

    In short, an iPhone isn’t a desktop computer and apps for it shouldn’t be forced to play by the same rules. The FSF rules need to bend a bit to take into account that difference.

  5. This is ridiculous. I love open source software, but realistically, if I wanted to modify it in a way that I could use, I would just download the source code and put it on my own phone that way. This if a free app, open source code, who cares if the actual distributed copy has some DRM on it? I thought open source was supposed to make software more easily accessible. If it’s yanked out of the app store, they’ll just be denying people some great software all due to an ego match.

  6. There has to be a way to accommodate this issue. Like Blake says, if the app is free and the source code is made freely available on link within the app, or on first launch a dialogue box pops up with a link or cancel to the source site.

    That should be enough to satisfy most open source pundits.

    GPL needs a few amendments to accommodate the modern world as it evolves. This is only harming innovation on smart phones as most have or will have to have some manner of DRM system wide.

  7. I understand and agree with the spirit of the GPL but I think the GPL needs to be revisited. App store models were not as prevalent when it was written and now it needs to be take into consideration. I think if an app is free and the source is freely available I don’t see an issue.