VLC on Thin Ice at the App Store?

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According to our friends over at the Free Software Foundation, VLC Developer Rémi Denis-Courmont recently sent Apple “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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