Apple's GPL Snafu and Opportunity

by Ostatic Staff - May. 26, 2010

Apple is finding itself on wrong end of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). An iPhone port of GNU Go has made its way into the App Store, which is all good — except that the terms of the App Store conflict with the GNU General Public License.

In case you missed it, the FSF sent notice to Apple about the inclusion of Go and raised the alarm publicly. This is a bit unusual for the FSF, which prefers to handle these issues quietly, at least initially. Why the change of tactic? Here's what the FSF has to say:

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.

After the FSF's notice, it looks like Apple has pulled GNU Go out of the App Store, as predicted. Too bad, Apple has a chance to change its ways a bit. The company should think seriously about revising its terms rather than burying the bones. Right now, Android is pulling ahead of the iPhone. One of the reasons is the general openness of the platform. It's not the only reason, but Apple could compete with Android by being a lot less closed and being friendly to open source developers.

Apple could see a lot more applications on the iPhone if it'd fix its policies to be free software friendly. There's no technical or legal reason Apple couldn't have a separate free software store for the iPhone. Apple could still control what goes in to the store. Nothing would prevent developers from charging for GPL'ed software — so long as the developers honor the terms of the GPL and allow redistribution of the source. It's a shame that Apple, as a major beneficiary of free software, is unwilling to pass the same benefits on to its users.