The free VLC Media Player app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad will likely soon disappear from the app store. Rmi Denis-Courmont, one of VLC’s core project developers, confirmed that he’s filed copyright infringement against Apple for distribution of the app through its store.
“VLC media player is free software licensed solely under the terms of the open source GNU General Public License (a.k.a. GPL),” Denis-Courmont explains, noting that even though VLC for iOS is free, Apple’s application DRM violates the terms of the license. “At the time of writing, the infringing application is still available. However, it is to be expected that Apple will cease distribution soon, just like it did with GNU Go earlier this year in strikingly similar circumstances.
“VLC and open-source software in general would not have reached their current quality and success if it had not been for their license. Therefore, blatant license violation cannot be tolerated at any rate. Concerned users are advised to look for application on more open mobile platforms for the time being.”
VLC is an extremely popular cross-platform, open-source media player known for its ability to play virtually any video or audio file type. A separate group of developers called Applidium ported VLC to Apple’s iOS and submitted it to the app store, where it was (perhaps surprisingly) accepted. Apple distributed it through their store with the DRM they use on every application — which is where the trouble really begins.
Now it’s the core group of developers of the VLC project, not the developers of the iOS app, who’ve filed suit against Apple for violation of the license. Apple has two choices: distribute the app without DRM — which would be absolutely unprecedented and cause all manner of problems for Apple, which manages applications through individual user accounts, handling updates through the App Store, etc. — or pull the app, which is what’s likely to happen.
“The fact of the GPL incompatibility was already well known,” Denis-Courmont observes. “JB [Jean-Baptiste Kempf, one of the Applidium/VLC developers who ported VLC to iOS] himself described it as a “grey area”. They decided to take the risk anyway, and they bear full responsibility for any consequences. Personally, I don’t blame them because I know very well how a geek feels when writing cool code for a cool new gadget.”
- If you want to grab VLC for iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, get it now. The easiest thing Apple can do to resolve this is pull the app, and I doubt they’ll dither.
- Even if you get VLC now, it could break after iOS 4.2 is released (some folks are already documenting problems with the beta) and the developers would have no way to update it. This sucks.
- There are serious problems with trying to port open-source projects to iOS, even as free applications. Without allowing sideloading or some alternate manner of distribution through the app store that respects the terms of the various open-source licenses under which these projects were developed and released, there’s a whole class of really interesting, powerful, well-known projects that may never see mobile versions on Apple’s platforms. And it would probably have to offer Android or another platform a serious competitive advantage to get Apple to change that.
- Apple’s forthcoming App Store for OS X 10.7 may wind up posing exactly the same problems, as it promises to use exactly the same account-based model to sync applications across devices. And that could be when we really start seeing some backlash.