01.11.11

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VLC Saga Shows Danger of Apple’s Binary Wall

Posted in Apple, Free/Libre Software, FSF, GPL at 3:10 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Co-authored with G. Forbes

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Summary: Developers can learn how Apple harms software producers, by acting as a draconian gateway that separates users from producers

MIDDLEMEN are prevalent in the world of copyrighted video and audio, but what about software? Apple is trying to do to hackers and organised businesses that sell software or services exactly the type of thing media conglomerates do to creative artists and so-called ‘pirates’. Should we step aside and allow this to happen? It’s no longer just the mobile platform of Apple that does this; Microsoft too has similar plans.

The VLC story was mentioned here earlier as the old GPL/VLC saga carries on (Apple has contested the GNU GPL).

The news of Apple’s banning of VLC media player from its “App” Store has produced a large amount of response (Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’ response is noteworthy). A large majority of it is predictable, trying to paint the GPL, R. Denis-Courmont, and practically anyone but Apple as the problem here. Jason Perlow is known for his frequent hostility towards the FSF and he previously wrote on the subject of the FSF’s relationship with the Apple App Store (or others). With regards to the VLC removal, he pushed an argument that the GPL’s complexity is what is at fault here. He supposedly explains “[h]ow to avoid public GPL floggings on Apple’s App Store”:

It is often said that no good deed goes unpunished. Unfortunately even with the best of intents, particularly as it relates to releasing Open Source Software, it is possible to run far afield of GPL and FOSS kashruth even if you think you are following the rules to the best of your ability.

It’s humourous to see him describe GPL compliance as some sort of minefield when Apple’s App Store developer agreement is needlessly complex, and apps can be removed at will, such as the censorship target of the day (the Wikileaks app [1, 2, 3]). By contrast, the GPL violation issue here can be put rather simply:

The difference in the two policies was flagged up to Apple by Rémi Denis-Courmont, one of the original developers of VLC. The GNU license would allow Apple to distribute the iOS version of VLC, but not to apply DRM to it; as has been the case with previous GNU-licensed apps, Apple has chosen to pull it from the App Store rather than amend their DRM policy.

See this article too:

VLC was a surprise addition to the App Store back in September, but one which iPad and iPhone users quickly came to appreciate. Now the multi-format media player has been yanked from the store, the result of incompatibilities with Apple’s App Store DRM policies and the terms of the GNU General Public License on which VLC is based.

Other articles ignore this plain fact and instead resort to idle speculation. One article even attempted to suggest that Denis-Courmont was influenced by his occupation at Nokia:

Rather, it’s a direct result of one man’s misguided crusade… a man who, (perhaps) coincidentally, is an employee of Nokia, one of Apple’s competitors in the mobile space.

Of course, the flaws with the assumption are numerous. VLC is still available for Android, an operating system which Nokia doesn’t utilize but many of its competitors do. Furthermore, VLC has been ported to other proprietary operating systems including OS X. Of course, if Apple amended its App Store policy to allow GPL software, then Denis-Courmont would not have a reason to protest the inclusion of VLC.

Of course, VLC isn’t the only software under the GPL which has had conflicts the restrictive App Store policy:

Before I give a status update on the iPhone issue, let’s get a refresher course on why this project exists in the first place. For years, Windows and Mac users have completely ignored their Linux gaming brethren. Linux users have spent countless hours trying to get the official Ventrilo program working under Linux with various levels of success. If the users of Ventrilo had decided to care in the slightest about cross-platform voice communications programs, they would have switched to Mumble (BSD licensed)… or even Teamspeak (which has Linux support, even if it is crappy).

Anyhow, Luigi Auriemma wrote a GPL implementation of the the Ventrilo call-home and encryption algorithm which is required for any implementation of the Ventrilo protocol. That code was the basis for the beginning of Spux (which, by necessity was GPL) by Michael Sierks and Cris Favero, which helped spawn the development of our little project here. Even if Luigi’s code hadn’t been GPL, we would have licensed our app as GPL anyway… but either way, we’re obligated to use the same license for our work.

For the most part, Pro-Apple Web sites mostly refrain from criticising Apple. VLC developers on the other hand explain this situation as follows: “First, even I do not know for certain why Apple removed VLC, and Apple will probably never state the truth.

“Second, Apple has already removed VLC from the “old” Mac Store for computers… already about 4 years ago, at a time when VLC was one of the most popular applications, and I am yet to learn the reasons why.

“Third, Apple received my copyright notification more than 2 months before they pulled the application. This was not expedited, as the US copyright law would require. As such, it seems dubious that my well-publicized notification from last october is the root cause of the removal. It is nevertheless the reason why I was learnt directly from Apple that VLC was removed.

“Last, Apple had the power and plenty of time (2 months) to adjust and clarifiy the terms of the App Store. Indeed, said terms were modified several times since then…”

Meanwhile it turns out that “Pirate Bay Founder Says Apple “Becoming Microsoft” with Mac App Store,” to echo the headline of another pro-Apple Web site:

The million people who downloaded Apple’s Mac Store yesterday are turning themselves into PCs, says Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde.

“Apple is going on the path to control computer use,” he told Forbes via e-mail, adding that Steve Jobs’ company is “forcing you to use their App Store to get programs.”

Whether you think the Mac App store makes Apple more like Microsoft or not, the confusion generated by the first iteration of the store – our post on what happens when you try to install apps you already have reads like something out of a Windows joke book – is definitely un-Apple like.

Sunde, who is facing jail time and a $700,000 fine after unsuccessfully fighting charges of encouraging copyright infringement by helping set up Pirate Bay, reportedly hit “delete” when a software update automatically installed the App Store on his Mac.

Apple is increasingly being associated with unjust control. Developers and users alike should pay attention to these attitudinal issues.

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