Why did Apple remove the free VLC video player from its iOS store? One developer close to the story who asked not to be named answered that question, simply, “No f**king idea.” And that perhaps sums up the mess, misunderstandings, and resentment now surrounding a mobile port of the video app.

The word “open” these days seems to mean whatever people want it to mean. But a dust-up over the distribution of free and open source video player VLC is far from abstract. By determining whether or not people are able to use a popular video tool on their iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, the dispute exposes confusion about licensing, new app stores, and the definition of free and open source software.

Apple, as the exclusive official means of distribution onto Apple devices, gets the last word on iOS software. This week, they voluntarily removed a port of VLC to iOS. In the resulting backlash, many in the Apple community – eager to have access to a popular app – turned their ire to the VLC project and open source software, not to Apple, deservedly or not.

Widely-quoted stories on Mac blogs TUAW and Cult of Mac wasted little time in savaging a perceived scapegoat in the controversy, developer Rémi Denis-Courmont, one of a number of contributors worldwide to VLC who raised a red flag about a potential incompatibility between Apple’s mobile store and the GPLv2 license under which VLC is released.

Calling core VLC developer Rémi Denis-Courmont “spiteful,” TUAW’s Chris Rawson argues that “VLC’s removal from the App Store has nothing to do with Apple’s preferences. Rather, it’s a direct result of one man’s misguided crusade… a man who, (perhaps) coincidentally, is an employee of Nokia, one of Apple’s competitors in the mobile space.” Cult of Mac’s John Brownlee picked up the same narrative, saying “[Denis-Courmont is] also mistaking the letter of the GPL for the spirit of the GPL, all as part of what appears to be some sort of knee-jerk anti-Apple crusade. That he works for Nokia makes this all just more suspect.” Brownlee, making no comment on Apple’s policies, referred to Denis-Courmont’s “considerable smugness.”

I wanted to get more information from the developers in question – both those who ported VLC to iOS, and the VLC team and Rémi Denis-Courmont. Here are their sides of the story – and I do mean sides, plural. Brownlee inaccurately refers to VideoLAN and contributor Denis-Courmont interchangeably, even though a quick Web search will reveal that VideoLAN’s chairman disagrees wholesale with Denis-Courmont’s characterization of the GPLv2 as incompatible with Apple’s store.

At the bottom of this mess, at least, some basic storyline does emerge.

The Sequence of Events

Samsung LED TV GPL License

The GPL license – on a Samsung TV. (Really.) Photo (CC-BY-SA) Syam Kumar.

First, in October, an independent iOS developer named Applidium ported the VLC video player to iOS and released it free of charge. Because VLC is a GPLv2-licensed app, they’re free to do so, since the application itself appears to have obeyed the terms of the GPLv2 license. The issue is that Apple’s own terms at the time may have been incompatible with the GPLv2, meaning the submission of VLC to the App Store could be seen to violate the GPL license.

Later that month, Denis-Courmont filed a complaint with Apple over the presence of VLC. He tells CDM that he did not claim the mobile VLC itself was in violation of the GPLv2. Instead, he says, he instructed that Apple if it was allowed to stay, Apple would have to implicitly accept the GPLv2 terms as pre-empting their own terms where conflicts did occur.

As cross-posted by Denis-Courmont to the VLC developer list on October 26:

Today, a formal notification of copyright infringement was sent to Apple Inc. regarding distribution of the VLC media player for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. VLC media player is free software licensed solely under the terms of the open source GNU General Public License (a.k.a. GPL). Those terms are contradicted by the products usage rules of the AppStore [sic] through which Apple delivers applications to users of its mobile devices.

Note that Denis-Courmont was not alone; various editorialists at the time predicted the removal of VLC for the same reasons. As a core developer, though, Denis-Courmont shares in the ownership of the app. This was simply a complaint to Apple, though; oddly, I’ve seen some journalists describe Denis-Courmont as “suing” Apple, which assumes the serving of legal papers – something that never happened. (In fact, the release at the time suggested instead that users should switch to more open mobile platforms, and predicted that Apple would voluntarily remove the app – which is exactly what eventually happened, albeit much later.)

Muddling matters further, on October 29, the Free Software Foundation posted:
VLC developer takes a stand against DRM enforcement in Apple’s App Store
— and apparently did so without contacting VideoLAN or Denis-Courmont. Both Denis-Courmont and VideoLAN’s Jean-Baptiste Kempf tell CDM that this misrepresents what is at its heart a debate about licensing agreements, not “DRM” per se.

Apple removed Applidium’s VLC on January 7. An Apple attorney told Rémi Denis-Courmont that they had done so – suggesting to me that his complaint held some weight in the Apple decision. (For his part, however, Denis-Courmont notes that the lag between Apple’s receipt of his complaint and the application’s removal was too slow to comply with strict US Copyright law.)

Denis-Courmont revealed Apple’s decision on January 8. Note that his posts are not, as some reported, on “the VideoLAN blog,” but on a “Planet VideoLAN” blog that aggregates personal blog posts from VideoLAN contributors. That aggregate blog carries the explicit disclaimer that the site “doesn’t necessarily represent the opinion of all the developers, the VideoLAN project…”

Developer Applidium posted a news release today on their blog:

Much to our surprise, we received this Friday an email from Apple that said “We regret that the dispute regarding your application named ‘VLC Media Player’ could not be resolved amicably between the parties. We have removed your application from the App Store. For any questions relating to this matter, please contact Rémi Denis-Courmont directly.”

This was a follow-up from an email we received from Apple last October : “On 10/20/2010, we received a notice from Rémi Denis-Courmont that Rémi Denis-Courmont believes your application named ‘VLC Media Player’ infringes Rémi Denis-Courmont’s intellectual property rights. In particular, Rémi Denis-Courmont believes you are infringing their copyright.”

Rémi Denis-Courmont’s complaint came pretty much unsuspected, since we did receive approval from the VideoLAN association before starting the iOS port of VLC. As a matter of fact, some members of VideoLAN even helped us porting VLC to the iOS.

It goes without saying, we still believe the AppStore licence is compatible with the GPLv2 under the which VLC is released. Therefore, together with the VideoLAN association, we’ll do our best to not let this be the end of VLC/iOS.

Applidium closes with the statement, “As a final word, we think it’s pretty sad to deny millions of users the right to enjoy a nice piece of open source software … in the name of freedom.” Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however; more on that in a bit.

Apple’s statement is potentially misleading; the dispute was not directly between Applidium and Denis-Courmont, but between the GPLv2 and Apple’s own rules. And by saying that the matter “could not be resolved … between the parties,” the implicit message from Apple was rather that Apple legal and the Apple Store are withdrawing from the issue of GPLv2 compatibility altogether.

Denis-Courmont tells CDM that he received no further communication from Apple or Applidium, despite what the notices from Apple might imply.

He tells CDM:

“[Apple communicated with me ] on two occasions. After a few days, Apple said they were in contact Applidium about this (no details).

About two months later, I was told Applidium told Apple it was resolving the issue. I have no clue what was meant by that.

Last I was told VLC was removed.”

Developers of VLC, VLC for iOS Tell Their Sides of the Story


VLC, reinterpreted. Photo (CC-BY) Pittaya Sroilong.

Jean-Baptiste Kempf is the chairperson of the non-profit VideoLAN organization, who produce and/or host a number of video projects, including the VLC media player. Unlike some observers, he tells CDM he believes that Apple’s App Store is compatible with software under a GPLv2 license. “I believe it is even more compatible than before,” he says, nonetheless adding, “I still believe Apple should clarify.”

Kempf also says he does not believe that the VLC port for iOS needed to be removed. “I don’t know anything about the motivation of [Apple’s] decision,” he says. “I don’t have to agree or not. VideoLAN does not have any objection for any other group of developers releasing the application, as long as they conform to the GPL.”

Rémi Denis-Courmont does not necessarily agree with Kempf’s analysis of the situation, based on his description to CDM. But he also emphasized that he speaks only for himself personally, not the VideoLAN project as a whole.

CDM: The Apple blog TUAW insinuated that you made this move because you work for a competing company. Can you comment on your position at Nokia?

Denis-Courmont: I am an engineer at Nokia. There I do stuff unrelated to VLC and media player in general. Someone is trying to make sensation at the expense of the VideoLAN project and myself.

What’s your relationship to VLC?

I have been working on VLC on my free time for the past 8 years, and at some point in the past, as part of my graduation as well. As of now, I have sent over 7500 different changes (1st), totalling almost 400,000 lines of code (2nd) according to Ohloh.

So I think it’s fair to say I am a core and active developer.

What was your main motivation for getting VLC removed from the store? Can you explain what would make Apple’s distribution incompatible with software released under GPLv2?

Regarding GPLv2, the situation is rather murky and is best checked with a lawyer. Personally, I am not happy with the usage restrictions that Apple tries to put on the AppStore software, for instance forbidding commercial use.
You will find a lot of comments about DRM. That comes from the Free Software Foundation coverage of this controversy. It’s not my main motivation.

Are you claiming the GPLv2 is incompatible with the store, or has that been Apple’s decision?

As long as VLC was on the App Store, its distribution was bound by the GPL. According to the Software Freedom Law Center lawyers, the GPL prevails the App Store terms. If that interpretation is correct, Apple could have kept it, under GPL. This is a bit lame situation from legal perspective though.

Critics like those on TUAW have complained that the net result of this complaint is that users are denied access to VLC. How do you answer that criticism?

That’s over-simplified. The removal of VLC was foretold over 2 months ahead [of the fact.]

And if you still missed it, VLC can still be installed on jail-broken devices. I expect it on Cydia anytime soon. Ed.: Good guess – Cydia, an alternative software repository for jailbroken devices, now carries VLC. But unlike platforms like Android and MeeGo, you have to make use of a root exploit in order to use Cydia.

But to the point, I never promised anybody that they would have VLC on iPhone. I did not betray anyone, and I think Apple neither. Furthermore, I did not choose the VLC license; that was done in 2000/2001 long before I joined the project. I also did not write the App Store terms. So I am absolutely not responsible for the incompatibility. I just brought it up.

What did you actually tell Apple in your complaint? Apple has, in a separate communication released by Applidium, allegedly claimed that the release of the application infringes your intellectual property rights. Is that in fact what you said?

I told Apple VLC was released under GPLv2, and unless GPLv2 was followed or VLC re-licensed (which I am not able to do alone), there was no valid copyright license.

At this point, both Apple and Applidium are effectively accusing you, not the license, of being the hold-up; if that’s not the case, can you describe what your original communication was and why you think this has turned out this way?

That explanation does not stand. I gave a non-revocable permission to use my VLC copyright under the GPL, as any other VLC developer.

If Apple believed there was no issues, they had no reason to remove VLC.

But if the GPLv2 is indeed compatible with the App Store, as Jean-Baptiste argued, why would Apple pull the app? What’s the objection?

I don’t know. I am not Apple. I can imagine different explanations:
– Apple believes there is incompatibility.
– Apple is playing safe to avoid litigation.
– Apple wanted to pull the app and uses this as an excuse.
– Apple removed the app due to unrelated business decision.

My Take, For What It’s Worth

Ultimately, I have to side with the view that this collision was inevitable. The fundamental characteristic of Apple’s software distribution outlet for mobile, above all others, is that it’s exclusive. Apple’s store is the only game in town; leaving browsers out of it, you buy or download from the company store, or don’t buy or download at all. Nitpicking licenses aside, that’s the bottom line, because even if a store on a platform like Android was incompatible with one license or another, you’d have a choice. On iOS, you don’t.

That’s not a criticism, and it’s not political advocacy. It’s a fact. The platform decision happens when you decide whether you want to buy into that model – and how happy you are once you have. But for Apple users to blame open source developers for rules set by Apple is, simply, inappropriate – least of all when they seem to have little knowledge of how the rules collided in the first place.

Of course, if you want it both ways, and want to see open source software on iOS, that case isn’t yet closed. While this decision doesn’t bode well for GPL-licensed software on the App Store, there are licenses (BSD, for one) that don’t have the same restrictions. For the GPL to be compatible, I think at this point the ball is in Apple’s court, to provide the kind of clarification they have with other areas of their user and developer agreements.

If you want more than one store, though, you should use a platform that provides that option.

As for whether this is worth it, I did ask Jean-Baptiste Kempf to sum up what VLC provides for visuals. “VideoLAN is just a project that wants to remove the hassle for the users
and make free video solutions,” he says. “People deserve to be able to trust their video solutions, which they can’t now.” What does the project have to offer in the future? “More formats, faster decoding and better playback. A correct media library and better streaming for everyone…”

As the dust settles on VLC, I think that’s a promising vision. If they do it right, it’s one some mobile developers – whether Apple or not – will likely want to encourage on their platform.

Further Reading

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols predicts further conflicts over GPL on the App Store, not just VLC:
No GPL Apps for Apple’s App Store [ZDNet]

Also on ZDNet, Jason Perlow has some advice if you’re thinking of working on GPLv2 software on the App Store: forget it. He blames neither Apple nor GPL and its advocates, but anyone foolhardy enough (in his view) to do what Applidium did and try to mix the two. Again, note that this is not the case with software with BSD licenses, like the Pure Data project.
How to avoid public GPL floggings on Apple’s App Store

Richard Gaywood steps in on TUAW as a voice of reason, following Chris’ heated tirade over VLC. His argument: based on open source history, objecting to the distribution of VLC was the right thing to do. He notes both sides: Apple has embraced open source software from the gcc compiler to WebKit browser engine – but, at the same time, should not be expected to “go to bat” for open source on its store. Since right now that leaves GPL software in a gray area, it means that software must force on other platforms.

Regardless of your personal feeling, it’s a must-read, well-informed and well-researched:
The GPL, the App Store, and you

One exception: if you own all the copyrights to software you’ve put under a GPL, you can indeed stick your software on Apple’s store, because you own it. That’s the reason a Belgian train timetable app, while under a GPL, isn’t going anywhere:
About Apple store, GPL’s, VLC and BeTrains

Meanwhile, while I’m frustrated that the FSF went on a tangential discussion of DRM that emphasized advocacy over badly-needed legal clarification, here are two cases in which representatives of free software advocacy groups helped set the record straight:

[vlc-devel] FSF position on GPLv2 & current App Store terms [VLC development mailing list]

And further, erm, listening…
Free as in Freedom: Episode 0x03: i Don’t Store [Software Freedom Law Center takes up the issue of GPL and the App Store in their “Oggcast”]