Influential dutch technology website Webwereld recently posted an opinion piece in which the author outlines the VLC/Apple App Store situation. As you may know, a video player based on VLC popped up in Apple’s iOS app store a while ago, only to be removed a little while later. Unfortunately, the author of the the article, Job Spijker, had the whole thing backwards. He argued that people involved in open source software should “get with the program” and jump on the App Store bandwagon. Thankfully, this can never happen.
VLC was removed from Apple’s application store at the request of Rémi Dennis-Courmont, one of VLC’s chief developers. This may sound strange, but it was an essential step in protecting the project’s freedom. Spijker suggests that it was simply a matter of time before a VLC-based player for iOS would be made, since VLC’s source code is “open”. I get the feeling he was under the assumption that developers can use open source code without any restrictions. A common misconception, albeit one I’d not expect a tech writer to make.
GPL = Freedom
Fortunately, the GPL license used in most open source projects severely restricts the ways in which “derived works” can be distributed. Its main purpose is to protect an open source project’s freedom. It’s important to understand that GPL software is free as in speech (as opposed to “as in beer”). The license isn’t there to protect the creator, it ensures the code’s “freedom”.
The basic concept of GPL is simple. You can use, modify and redistribute any piece of open source software, as long as grant the same rights to whomever downloads or buys your version. To allow for further modification, you’re required to include te program’s source files. There are a few more things that GPL does, but this is the “executive summary”.
Apple’s DRM model
Apple’s App Store is fundamentally incompatible with this model. It uses DRM to severely restrict how a user can use purchased software, and absolutely forbids modifications and redistribution. By posing these restrictions, Apple effectively makes it impossible for users to use open source software on their iOS devices. This is Apple’s choice, and it’s unlikely they’ll reconsider any time soon.
So if there’s any “getting with the program” to be done it’s by Apple. Dennis-Courmont simply stood up for his project when he noticed a violation of the license under which it is released. Had he allowed for a derived work to by sold under Apple’s DRM, he would have weakened the legal position of one of the coolest open source projects. In my opinion, it’s very important for iOS users to understand this. I know from my own experience that iOS is a very nice operating system to use, but it’s also a walled garden, with Apple imposing some pretty draconian restrictions. To me, it feels like a prison. Albeit a very warm and cosy one.