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Mark Nelson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Apple vs. GPL, Round One

June 06, 2010

I didn't see it coming years ago when the iPod was first introduced, and I don't know anyone else who did. Looking back, it's clear now that Apple has followed a clever and well-planned track leading to the successful deployment of a tightly closed computing environment. Apple's iPod, iPhone, and iPad software environments are completely orthogonal to free, at least as the term is commonly used in computing.

And while we can complain all we want about the iron fist of Steve Jobs, I think we can agree on this: one of the saddest things about this paradigm shift is the threat it poses to free software.

Surprise, Surprise

Looking back, it's kind of strange that it took so long for this issue to surface. Last month, the Free Software Foundation noticed that a program in the Apple Store was built on GNU Go, and pointed out that this distribution was in clear violation of the GPL.

Now, publishing GNU Go under the GPL is pretty much a declaration that the writers want the program to be spread far and wide, with plenty of opportunity for people to use it, modify it, and improve on it. Wouldn't publishing a version for the iPad and iPhone be doing just that?

Yes and no. Having GNU Go in the App store certainly makes it easy for other people to use the program, but it doesn't provide good mechanisms for users to improve the code, share bug fixes, and experiment with the code. The closed nature of the iPhone and iPad make this difficult or impossible. This is completely antithetical to the ideals behind the GPL.

As a result of the kerfuffle, GNU Go was removed from the App Store, leading to this comment from the Free Software Foundation:

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.

Is It Really That Bad?

One might point out that you can certainly work with GNU Go and test out modified source on your own iPad. All you have to do is join Apple's developer program, which is not really too much of a big deal.

But the FSF doesn't really see this as freedom. First, developers in Apple's program can only redistribute software to others under Apple's terms. The GPL insists that redistribution not attach any additional restrictions to derived works. And secondly, a user who develops a modified version of GNU Go may or may not be able to distribute it - they are subject to Apple's capricious approval process. Again, this is a limitation on their freedom.

As it stands right now, the Apple iPhone/iPad ecosystem is not going to work with code published under GPLv2 or GPLv3. This is a shame, and it would really be nice to see Apple do something to remedy the situation. Free software has been very good to Apple, and in many cases, Apple has given back to the movement. But the current situation is such a blatant slap in the face to free software that every one of us can feel the sting.

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