Why VLC will never be in the iOS App Store

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.

Roy | January 19, 2011 | English,Gadgets,Software | Comments (6)
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  1. Roy,

    Thanks for this explanation. I’d read something similar to what you’re stating with regard to the use of open source code on iOS devices as distributed by Apple. I’m wondering if there’s a way to come up with modified licensing provisions which would allow for such a use. Perhaps it’s contradictory to the whole concept of the GPL, but I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be acceptable if the creator of the app simply included a link to download the source code for their app on their website (as linked from the App Store).

    Is this something that Apple would not allow? Is it required that the source code be available directly from the program itself where and in what capacity it is operating? I could envision scenarios where VLC could be implemented that would not allow for downloading and redistribution of the code. For example, what if I have VLC operating on a set of networked Macs where the use machines are set up so as to disallow the users from accessing application code. Isn’t this kind of thing already happening?

    Why wouldn’t it be a reasonable accomodation to have the current version of the source code posted and freely available? I can understand if someone makes an app and is profiting from the sale of the app, that it would not be in the spirit or letter of the GPL.

    I’m not a software developer, so please forgive any obvious errors in my thinking.

    Comment by Andrew Raimist — January 20, 2011 @ 4:17 am

  2. Hi Andrew. Making the source code available for download elsewhere is probably acceptable in terms of the GPL, but it fixes only part of the issue. Your download (or purchase) is still locked to your iTunes account. And if you were to pry it loose, you’d need an Apple developer account to submit your version to the App Store (redistribution). And even then, it wouldn’t make it in there because it’s a “duplicate”.

    Basically, there would be additional hurdles for users, which is what GPL forbids. It specifies that no additional limitations may apply to your users. They should have the same rights as you.

    Comment by Roy — January 20, 2011 @ 9:22 am

  3. Roy, great article but I have a question. WOuldnt this be mostly a business move for apple? Im assuming they want to venture into video and media players for thigns such as the iPod so it would make most sense to limit things such as VLC and Youtube. Would Like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Comment by iPhone 5 Price — July 12, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    • I don’t think Apple’s looking to expand its current video player into something other than a utility. They may add support for new formats, but it’ll never be cash cow (unlike things like iTunes’s video store and future rental services, etc). They’re not blocking Nexflix or HBO Go, so I guess they’d have no business issues at all with a player like VLC.

      Comment by Roy — July 13, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  4. What about releasing the app as if it’s part of an organization or company. Doesn’t apple allow firms or organizations to release apps directly to their users bypassing apple entirely? Can’t VLC distribute their app directly to their users without DRM this way?

    Comment by JCC — October 19, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    • No, Apple require all apps to go through their app store. There are alternative stores for jailbroken phones, but other than that there’s no way to bypass Apple.

      Comment by Roy — October 19, 2011 @ 1:34 pm