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Richard Stallman: The Problems of the Apple License

Feb 22, 2001, 17:08 (40 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Richard Stallman)

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By Richard Stallman

After studying Apple's new source code license, the APSL, I have concluded that it falls short of being a free software license. It has three fatal flaws, any of which would be sufficient to make the software less than free.

Apple has released an updated version, 1.1, of the APSL but it remains unacceptable. They have changed the termination clause into a ``suspension'' clause, but it still has the same kind of bad effects.

In January 2001, Apple released another updated version, 1.2, of the APSL, but it too remains unacceptable. It still has the requirement that any "deployed" modified version must be published. So it is still not a free software license.

Disrespect for privacy
The APSL does not allow you to make a modified version and use it for your own private purposes, without publishing your changes.

Central control
Anyone who releases (or even uses, other than for R&D) a modified version is required to notify one specific organization, which happens to be Apple.

Possibility of revocation at any time
The termination clause says that Apple can revoke this license, and forbid you to keep using all or some part of the software, any time someone makes an accusation of patent or copyright infringement.

In this way, if Apple declines to fight a questionable patent (or one whose applicability to the code at hand is questionable), you will not be able to have your own day in court to fight it, because you would have to fight Apple's copyright as well.

Such a termination clause is especially bad for users outside the US, since it makes them indirectly vulnerable to the insane US patent system and the incompetent US patent office, which ordinarily could not touch them in their own countries.

Any one of these flaws makes a license unacceptable.

If these three flaws were solved, the APSL would be a free software license with three major practical problems, reminiscent of the NPL:

  • It is not a true copyleft, because it allows linking with other files which may be entirely proprietary.
  • It is unfair, since it requires you to give Apple rights to your changes which Apple will not give you for its code.
  • It is incompatible with the GPL.

Of course, the major difference between the NPL and the APSL is that the NPL *is* a free software license. These problems are significant in the case of the NPL because the NPL has no fatal flaws. Would that the same were true of the APSL.

At a fundamental level, the APSL makes a claim that, if it became accepted, would stretch copyright powers in a dangerous way: it claims to be able to set conditions for simply *running* the software. As I understand it, copyright law in the US does not permit this, except when encryption or a license manager is used to enforce the conditions. It would be terribly ironic if a failed attempt at making a free software license resulted in an extension of the effective range of copyright power.

Aside from this, we must remember that only part of MacOS is being released under the APSL. Even if the fatal flaws and practical problems of the APSL were fixed, even if it were changed into a very good free software license, that would do no good for the other parts of MacOS whose source code is not being released at all. We must not judge all of a company by just part of what they do.

Overall, I think that Apple's action is an example of the effects of the year-old "open source" movement: of its plan to appeal to business with the purely materialistic goal of faster development, while putting aside the deeper issues of freedom, community, cooperation, and what kind of society we want to live in.

Apple has grasped perfectly the concept with which "open source" is promoted, which is "show users the source and they will help you fix bugs". What Apple has not grasped--or has dismissed--is the spirit of free software, which is that we form a community to cooperate on the commons of software.

FSF & GNU inquiries & questions to

Copyright (C) 1999, 2001 Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place - Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA

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Updated: 21 Feb 2001 bkuhn