GPLv2 blocks VLC from Apple's App Store

It had to happen eventually. Open source software is all about letting anyone have access to the source code, and Apple is all about restricting any software access on its platforms. So when questions began to be raised about whether VideoLAN's popular VLC Media Player, which is licensed under the GPLv2, could legally be sold on the Apple's App Store, you knew something had to give. Well, it just did.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has just told the VLC developer community that the GPLv2 does, indeed, conflict with Apple's App Store Terms. In a note to the VLC membership list, Brett Smith, FSF Licensing Compliance Engineer, wrote that because "Apple 'only' allows you to do the activities in the list of Usage Rules, if an activity does not appear in this list, you're not allowed to do it at all."

Smith continued:

"Section 6 of GPLv2 says: 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.

When the App Store terms prohibit commercial use, general distribution, and modification, these are exactly the kinds of "further restrictions" that are not allowed thanks to the last sentence here.

This is a crucial part of the GPL's copyleft. Without this section, it would be trivially easy to keep freedom away from users by putting additional requirements in a separate legal agreement, like Terms of Service or an NDA.

Section 6 is not legal minutia: if you take it away, the license would completely fail to work as designed at all."

This puts VideoLAN's developers between a rock and a hard place.They knew this problem was coming though

VideoLAN developer Rémi Denis-Courmont, a Linux kernel developer for Nokia and one of VideoLAN's lead developers, had informed Apple in late October that the VLC media player for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch GPL is "contradicted by the products usage rules of the App Store."

Denis-Courmont "expected that Apple will cease distribution [of VideoLAN] soon, just like it did with GNU Go earlier this year in strikingly similar circumstances:" So what should mobile users do instead? Denis-Courmont suggested that since "blatant license violation cannot be tolerated at any rate. Concerned users are advised to look for application on more open mobile platforms for the time being." Say, Android?

IPhone, iPad, and iTouch users can, however, continue to use MobileVLC if they've already downloaded it according to Smith. The problem is with how Apple licenses the sale of GPLv2 code to users, not with how users use it.

As you might expect, some VideoLAN programmers are very ticked off about all this. In a follow-up VideoLAN mailing list post, developer Jean-Baptiste Kempf wrote, "With 'friends' like you, we don't need any enemies. If I understand correctly, the FSF new policy is to blow up communities?" Smith replied, "My analysis of the current terms talks about how the Usage Rules restrict distribution."

I don't know what VideoLAN will do next and how this will work out, but I did know that GPLv2 and the Apple App Store licenses could never work together. Until Apple changes its ways, open source and the Apple way of controlling software will continue to clash.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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