One of the foundational principles of GPL licensed software is the ability of anyone to re-distribute the software pursuant to the terms of the GPL license. This puts the GPL squarely in conflict with the terms of Apple's App Store. The App Store has DRM technology in place that prevents someone from re-distributing software downloaded from the store. This conflict has resulted in open source software being removed from the App Store before and is now threatening that the popular VLC player be removed as well.
The reason that VLC may have to come off the App Store is that one of the contributers filed a formal copyright notice with Apple stating that the terms of the App Store violates the GPL terms. On a strict legal interpretation, it would appear that either one side or the other has to give here or we all lose. So what will happen when the immutable terms of the GPL collide with the Apple mountain of arrogance? You are dealing with two ideological camps who usually don't give an inch, so don't look for a compromise.
What a shame that would be.. As I said the real losers will be all of us. Not having open source apps available for iPhone would not be a good thing, unless of course you are Google/Android. It would be one more reason for people to go Android, which already cashes in on its open status (whether it is open source or not is another story).
But I have another option. What about if open source apps took a "don't ask, don't tell" approach. If developers want to distribute their apps via Apple, if they don't file a copyright notice or other such notice, nothing really happens. VLC and other GPL apps have been on the App Store a long time now. It appears only when someone complains are they removed. So no complaints and they stay on?
Is that a sell out for the open source community? You bet it is. Of course there are other issues too. If I were a competitor to an open source app on iTunes I would complain on their behalf. For the same reasons that "don't ask, don't tell" didn't work out so well for the military, I doubt it will work here long term either. But for the short term what else to do?
I just cannot imagine the FSF or the GNU folks giving on this issue. Re-distribution is just to close to the bone for them to cut. On the other hand, Apple has led the way with DRM. While they have given a little bit on DRM for songs by selling some songs for more money with less restrictive DRM, I don't see them giving here without a major outcry from the community.
So long term you and I and everyone we know has to make Apple change this policy. Knowing that failure to change may drive people to Android is powerful incentive for Apple to give on this one.
I know there are some who say, "don't use the GPL". Yes that is another option. But re-distribution is pretty near and dear to most all OSI licenses I believe. If you know OSI licenses that don't contain open re-distribution rights let me know. In the meantime, go download VLC while it is still available and make sure you let Apple know how you feel
As co-founder and Managing Partner at The CISO Group, Alan Shimel is responsible for driving the vision and mission of the company. The CISO Group offers security consulting and PCI compliance management for the payment card industry. Prior to The CISO Group, Alan was the Chief Strategy Officer at StillSecure. Shimel was the public persona of StillSecure as it grew from start up to helping defend some of the largest and most sensitive networks in the world.
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