Mac Musings

Open Software, Closed Minds

Daniel Knight - 2010.11.01 -

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I was disturbed to read today that VLC for iOS may soon disappear from the App Store. After all, VLC is a very popular, free, open source media player that's available for Windows, Macs, and Linux.

According to MacStories, "Rémi Denis-Courmont, one of the primary developers of VLC, sent a formal notification of copyright infringement to Apple regarding the way VLC for iOS is distributed in the App Store."

It seems that distributing free, open source software that is licensed under certain open source licenses (the GNU General Public License in this case) violates the terms of that license if it's distributed with any form of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), which everything available through the App Store includes. One stipulation of the GNU license is that every copy of the software can be freely copied and installed on another device running the same OS.

Videolan maintains that even though VLC for iOS is free and can thus be downloaded and installed for free, the fact that Apple's DRM only allows each individual download to be installed on up to five iOS devices is a technical violation of the GNU GPL. (There's also a requirement in the GNU GPL that gives every user permission to modify the program, which is not something iOS allows.)

Because of the way iOS and the App Store work, it's not currently possible to distribute apps without DRM. That five-device restriction is part of the system,* although it's quite possible that Apple could change things in the future.


This is madness. Anyone with an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch can download and install VLC for iOS for free. Anyone. And they can install it on up to five iOS devices, just like every other iOS app. There is no limit as to how many iTunes accounts you can use to download and install the free VLC app, so if you have multiple computers, you can install VLC on five times as many iOS devices as you have computers.

In fact, it's even better than that. If you have one computer with multiple user accounts, each user account can download and install VLC on five iOS devices, so bypassing the five-machine iOS/App Store restriction is as easy as creating a new user account on your computer, creating a new iTunes account, and then downloading and installing the software.

For free.

Yet Videolan contends that the simple fact that VLC for iOS is distributed for free with restrictions of copying the software and no provision for modifying it violates the GNU General Public License.

Who Wins? Who Loses?

When an iOS port of GNU Go, a chess game covered by the GNU GPL, was discovered earlier this year, the Free Software Foundation filed a complaint with Apple, and Apple responded by removing the app.

Who won? The anal-retentive (yes, it is hyphenated) guardians of free, open source software made their point, but they did so at the expense of end users who wanted to use this free, open source software on a closed platform.

I call that a Pyrrhic victory, because the Free Software Foundation and Videolan win nothing by denying iOS users access to their free, open source apps, and their potential end users lose because they are denied access to this free software.

A Modest Suggestion

If the so-called Free Software Foundation (FSF) has problems with truly free software like GNU Go being available for iOS, it needs to do something smarter than simply whine to Apple that the iOS port violates the GNU GPL.

"...we have written to Apple and asked them to come into compliance. We would be happy to see Apple distribute these programs under the GPL's terms, but unfortunately, it seems much more likely that they'll simply make the problem go away by removing GNU Go from the App Store."

In other words, FSF anticipated that Apple would do the only thing Apple could do, remove the app. And that's probably the same thing that's going to happen with VLC for iOS.

What if the FSF and Videolan had been more proactive and addressed the realities of iOS, the App Store, and Apple's Terms of Service? Why not explain to Apple that although the software is available for free, its inclusion of DRM violates the GNU GPL, and then suggest a solution?

Why not? Because they are thinking inside the open software box.

Here's the solution I would recommend:

  1. Apple commit to creating a new class apps that have no restriction on how often they can be installed. This might require a new version of iTunes, the app that installs iOS app, and it might mean recoding the DRM bits of the software to indicate that unlimited copying is permissible.
  2. The open source crowd understands that the five-user limitation is currently built into iTunes, the App Store, and iOS, but because the software is free and users can download and install it as many times as they have user accounts, these apps and Apple do not violate the spirit of the GPL.
  3. Open source advocates update the GPL and other restrictive free software licenses in light of the realities of iOS, which didn't even come to market until after the latest revision (GPL v3) was adopted. Make allowances the embrace the spirit of freely available apps on platforms that don't allow users to modify programs or include restrictions on how many times an app can be installed as long as the apps can be downloaded and installed for free.

At present, iTunes limits installation to five devices, part of Apple's agreement with programmers, and because this is consistent across the board, iTunes doesn't need a way to allow for a single install or unlimited installs. It's much easier to treat all iOS devices the same when installing software, and it's going to take a rewrite of the part of iTunes that manages DRM before unlimited installs will be possible.

Until such time as there is support for unlimited installation, as long as Apple continues to allow users to download and install the software for free, the free software advocates should agree to turn a blind eye to the technical violation of GNU GPL.

Free is free, even on a closed platform with DRM.

* There have been some questions regarding what I mean by "the system", since the five device restriction isn't part of the hardware or iOS. By the system, I mean the entire iOS system - hardware, operating system, iTunes, and the App Store.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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