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GPL Enforcement in Apple's App Store

by brett Contributions Published on May 25, 2010 09:19 AM
An iPhone port of GNU Go is currently being distributed through Apple's App Store. However, this distribution is not in compliance with the GNU GPL. The primary problem is that Apple imposes numerous legal restrictions on use and distribution of GNU Go through the iTunes Store Terms of Service, which is forbidden by section 6 of GPLv2. So today 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.

(Unfortunately, instead of amending their terms of service to work with the GNU GPL, Apple have decided to remove GNU Go from the App Store. Please read our follow up report)

In most ways, this is a typical enforcement action for the FSF: we want to resolve this situation as amicably as possible. We have not sued Apple, nor have we sent them any legal demand that they remove the programs from the App Store. The upstream developers for this port are also violating the GPL, and we are discussing this with them too. We are raising the issue with Apple as well since Apple is the one that distributes this software to the public; legally, both parties have the responsibility to comply with the GPL.

The only thing we're doing differently is making this announcement. Apple has a proven track record of blocking or disappearing programs from the App Store without explanation. So we want to provide everyone with these details about the case before that happens, and prevent any wild speculation.

GPLv2 gives every individual and company permission to modify and distribute the software; but if they do that, they must follow terms of the license that are designed to ensure that people who receive the software from them have both the legal right and practical ability to share and change the software as well. Apple is free to distribute our software through the App Store if they wish, but they cannot take advantage of the license's permissions while turning a blind eye to the conditions. If they want to continue distributing this software, they must not prohibit others from doing so through the iTunes Store Terms of Service.

If you cannot modify the software that you use, then that program can be designed to serve someone else's interests over yours. It's unsurprising that Apple would put its users in this predicament; they've made no secret of the fact that they intend to control what people do on their products with an iron fist. Whether they stop you from doing certain tasks by banning VoIP apps, or limit people's speech by selectively blocking political commentary, Apple sees to it that App Store apps serve Apple's interests first, Apple's business partners' interests second, and yours a distant third.

We have a different idea. We believe that people should be allowed to use their computers however they like, whether the devices are shaped like laptops, cell phones, or tablets. The GPL was designed to ensure that everyone has that right, and the free software community has been writing software for twenty-five years now to make those rights a practical reality.

For more information, contact:

Brett Smith
License Compliance Engineer
Free Software Foundation
+1 (617) 542 5942 x18
brett@fsf.org

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