Will the iPhone violate GPL 3?

The Free Software Foundation raises the specter that the iPhone's software will violate its new GPL 3 license.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

You have to feel a little sorry for the Free Software Foundation, which launched the first overhaul of its General Public License (GPL) in 16 years on the same day that Apple's iPhone launch hogged the spotlight.

Future GPL 3 violator? Apple

But the foundation, like everybody and his brother, couldn't resist looking for a piece of the iPhone action. It used the launch as an opportunity to preach the merits of its new license and raise the specter that Apple's iPhone will violate it.

"We know that Apple has built its operating system, OS X, and its Web browser, Safari, using GPL-covered work--it will be interesting to see to what extent the iPhone uses GPLed software," said Peter Brown, executive director of the foundation, in a statement on Thursday.

That sounded a little vague, so I asked the foundation for some follow-up. Joshua Gay said he doesn't know what software is in the iPhone, but said, "If it's true that Apple can upgrade the software on the phone, but users can't, then distributing GPL 3 software on the iPhone would be a violation of the license."

Even if the iPhone uses GPL software, it's not clear whether Apple will employ GPL 3 versions of it at some point. What is clear is the foundation's loathing for what the iPhone represents.

Free software--that which grants anyone the freedom to see, modify and redistribute its underlying source code--is "radically reshaping the industry and threatening the proprietary technology model represented by the iPhone," the foundation said. On Friday, "Steve Jobs and Apple release a product crippled with proprietary software and digital restrictions: crippled, because a device that isn't under the control of its owner works against the interests of its owner."

Specifically, the foundation decries what it calls "TiVo-ization"--the incorporation of GPL software into a device, such as a TiVo's personal video recorder, that stops working if its software is modified.

The GPL 3 attempts to block such behavior, though Linus Torvalds, leader of the Linux kernel project, objects to it vehemently as overreaching.