FSF taking the high road again: GNU Go on the Apple “App Store”

Apple is currently distributing an electronic version of the centuries-old board game “Go” called GNU Go. GNU Go’s copyright holder is the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and part of the GNU operating system. GNU Go is licensed to everyone under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Apple imposes numerous restrictions on program use and distribution on all programs distributed via the Apple App Store. These restrictions are incompatible with the GPL; if one cannot simultaneously comply with all of the GPL’s terms and other relevant terms one cannot distribute their program based on GPL-covered code at all (paraphrasing section 7 of GPL version 2 and section 12 of GPL version 3). This makes Apple a copyright infringer. The developers who ported GNU Go to work with the iPhone are infringing the GPL as well, but Apple is the higher profile distributor here and Apple has a commercial interest in attracting more users to the iPhone.

The FSF isn’t starting the discussion with their legal guns drawn like so many copyright holders represented by the Business Software Alliance, Motion Picture Association, and Recording Industry Association of America do. The FSF takes the high road by initially seeking compliance with their license rather than initially suing. In fact, the only unusual note in this situation is that the FSF informed people about this infringement publicly so soon (typically they privately inform the parties involved about the relevant license terms).

The FSF has a history of taking the high road with copyright infringers. This is another example of how the FSF shows us how to behave by demonstrating the right behavior.

But doesn’t the FSF stand to benefit by taking an infringer to court and making an example of them? No. Take it from Eben Moglen, long-time GPL enforcer and president of the Software Freedom Law Center in his essays on enforcing the GPL:

If I had used the courts to enforce the GPL years ago, Microsoft’s whispering would now be falling on deaf ears. Just this month I have been working on a couple of moderately sticky situations. “Look,” I say, “at how many people all over the world are pressuring me to enforce the GPL in court, just to prove I can. I really need to make an example of someone. Would you like to volunteer?”

Someday someone will. But that someone’s customers are going to go elsewhere, talented technologists who don’t want their own reputations associated with such an enterprise will quit, and bad publicity will smother them. And that’s all before we even walk into court. The first person who tries it will certainly wish he hadn’t. Our way of doing law has been as unusual as our way of doing software, but that’s just the point. Free software matters because it turns out that the different way is the right way after all.Eben Moglen