Apple infringing copyright…again


In May 2010 Apple distributed copies of a computer version of the classic board game Go through its App Store. This GNU Go variant is licensed under the GNU General Public License version 2 (GNU GPL) which does not allow additional restrictions to be added to the license. Apple’s App Store imposes additional restrictions on the applications distributed through the App Store, restrictions which are incompatible with the GNU GPL. Hence the incompatibility Apple introduced when it drafted the rules for its App Store.

Apple reviews every program it distributes through its App Store so Apple knowingly distributed this Go program in violation of the GNU GPL. This constitutes copyright infringement.

Apple has all the permission they need to distribute GPLed software through their App Store. The GPL ensures this; Apple could even distribute GPLed programs commercially charging users for downloading copies of GPLed programs.

The Free Software Foundation, GNU Go’s copyright holder, pointed this out to Apple in their usual way aiming for compliance not litigation:

In most ways, this is a typical enforcement action for the FSF: we want to resolve this situation as amicably as possible. We have not sued Apple, nor have we sent them any legal demand that they remove the programs from the App Store. The upstream developers for this port are also violating the GPL, and we are discussing this with them too. We are raising the issue with Apple as well since Apple is the one that distributes this software to the public; legally, both parties have the responsibility to comply with the GPL.

The only thing we’re doing differently is making this announcement. Apple has a proven track record of blocking or disappearing programs from the App Store without explanation. So we want to provide everyone with these details about the case before that happens, and prevent any wild speculation.

Free Software Foundation’s License Compliance Engineer Brett Smith

Instead of changing the App Store rules to get themselves into compliance with the GPL, Apple decided to stop distributing GNU Go. This choice deprived Apple’s users of GNU Go.

The latest chapter: VLC

Now Apple is at it again: this time with VideoLAN Client (VLC)—a versatile media player one can use to watch all sorts of movies. VLC is quite famous in free software because it is so easy to use and because it plays so many different media formats.

Someone made a version of VLC for Apple’s iOS (the operating system Apple ships on the Apple iPad). The programmers submitted their variant of VLC to Apple’s App Store and Apple chose to distribute the program. Apple never changed the conditions which prohibit them from distributing GPL-covered programs, so they are again infringing the copyright of a free software developer.

This time one of the VLC copyright holders, Rémi Denis-Courmont who is also one of VLC’s primary developers, complained to Apple:

VLC media player is free software licensed solely under the terms of the… GNU General Public License (a.k.a. GPL). Those terms are contradicted by the products usage rules of the AppStore through which Apple delivers applications to users of its mobile devices.Rémi Denis-Courmont

and the FSF concurs:

The GPL gives Apple permission to distribute this software through the App Store. All they would have to do is follow the license’s conditions to help keep the software free. Instead, Apple has decided that they prefer to impose Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and proprietary legal terms on all programs in the App Store, and they’d rather kick out GPLed software than change their own rules. Their obstinance prevents you from having this great software on Apple devices””not the GPL or the people enforcing it.

Apple continues to use more DRM in their products: they just announced that a Mac App Store will be coming soon to their laptops and desktops, and you can bet it will have the same draconian restrictions as today’s App Store. Meanwhile, people enforcing the GPL like Rémi are fighting against DRM, so that everyone can be in full control of their own computers. We’re thankful to him for taking a stand. If you want to show your support, too, it’s easy: just steer clear of Apple’s DRM-infested App Store.

Free Software Foundation’s License Compliance Engineer Brett Smith

Anyone failing to comply with programmers who license their work to freely share and modify comes off looking very bad because they step on the efforts of people who are trying to treat people nicely. Therefore Apple comes off looking very bad every time they deny their users free software for non-compliance with copyright.

Update (2010-11-23): Brett Smith posted FSF analysis of Apple’s terms and conditions to the VLC-devel mailing list (local copy). Karen Sandler and Bradley Kuhn also go into this issue on their show “Free as in Freedom” (Ogg Vorbis recording, local copy). As I pointed out elsewhere, Apple’s changed terms and conditions still don’t allow them to distribute GPL’d works; Apple is still disallowing themselves from distributing GPL’d works.

Update (2011-01-07): Rémi Denis-Courmont writes to Planet VideoLAN:

At last, Apple has removed VLC media player from its application store. Thus the incompatibility between the GNU General Public License and the AppStore terms of use is resolved – the hard way. I am not going to pity the owners of iDevices, and not even the MobileVLC developers who doubtless wasted a lot of their time. This end should not have come to a surprise to anyone.