Apple Users Forced to Pirate VLC Player? Whatever Next?

Last year, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch users were delighted to learn that VLC media player had become available for their device via the App Store. But now, thanks to a licensing and copyright dispute, that particular party has been cut short and the software pulled offline. Bizarrely, the only way people can get this free and open source software now is to pirate it. You couldn't make it up.

VLCpirateVLC media player is resident on the PCs of millions of Internet users. It’s an almost perfect tool capable of playing videos and audio in just about any format found anywhere on the web, especially file-sharing networks. Free and open source, when something can’t be played, VLC almost always provides the answer.

Last September it was revealed, much to the delight of millions of iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch users, that a version of VLC would now be available on Apple devices through the company’s App Store. Developed in the open source spirit and offered for free by mobile company Applidium, the app was given the blessing of VideoLAN. The reach of the mighty VLC had been extended and users far and wide rejoiced, but not for long.

One of the original developers of VLC, Rémi Denis-Courmont, angrily pointed out that incompatibilities exist between Apple’s DRM policies and the terms of the GNU General Public License under which VLC is offered. While the GNU license allows Apple to offer an iOS version of VLC, the layer of DRM it puts over the top of the application was a no-no.

“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,” wrote Denis-Courmont on October 26th 2010, adding that the likely outcome would be that Apple would be forced to pull the free app from the App Store.

And yesterday, that’s exactly what happened.

In a post titled “There’s no app for that (anymore),” Denis-Courmont celebrates his victory.

“At last, Apple has removed VLC media player from its application store,” he wrote. “Thus the incompatibility between the GNU General Public License and the AppStore terms of use is resolved – the hard way. I am not going to pity the owners of iDevices, and not even the MobileVLC developers who doubtless wasted a lot of their time. This end should not have come to a surprise to anyone.”

While disclosing that i’m the fairly happy user of three iOS devices, i’m going to take the stance of the layman here and risk incurring the wrath of the hardcore supporters of the GNU public license. For the man in the street this decision sucks and this statement from Denis-Courmont is insensitive to say the least.

Look, I loathe Apple’s restrictive practices and DRM with a passion too but the vast majority of Apple users – the vast majority of regular computer users, period – couldn’t give a rat’s ass about this kind of dispute. And why should the layman care? DRM? Open source what? GNU? Isn’t that some kind of cattle?

The net result is that a perfectly good product, a free product wrapped in DRM that serves no practical use in this case, is no longer available to the masses. And understandably the man in the street won’t give a damn about the great philosophy of freedom behind the GNU license nor the evils of DRM. He will care only that VLC is not available any more and he can’t play his videos.

The great irony here is that it’s these kind of disputes, between the interests of one company and those of another, that causes all sorts of complex licensing issues in the music and movie industries. Those issues cause distribution problems and an inability to fulfil demand. The result is gaps in the market which cannot be served because of legal issues.

And what fills that void every time? Piracy.

It’s no surprise then that the free, open source VLC for iDevices is only easily available from the likes of Installous. What has the world come to?

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