March 9, 2010 | By Fred von Lohmann

UPDATED: All Your Apps Are Belong to Apple: The iPhone Developer Program License Agreement

The entire family of devices built on the iPhone OS (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) have been designed to run only software that is approved by Apple—a major shift from the norms of the personal computer market. Software developers who want Apple's approval must first agree to the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement.

So today we're posting the "iPhone Developer Program License Agreement"—the contract that every developer who writes software for the iTunes App Store must "sign." Though more than 100,000 app developers have clicked "I agree," public copies of the agreement are scarce, perhaps thanks to the prohibition on making any "public statements regarding this Agreement, its terms and conditions, or the relationship of the parties without Apple's express prior written approval." But when we saw the NASA App for iPhone, we used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to ask NASA for a copy, so that the general public could see what rules controlled the technology they could use with their phones. NASA responded with the Rev. 3-17-09 version of the agreement.

UPDATED: we are now also posting the most recent version of the agreement, dated January 2010.

This "license agreement" is particularly relevant right now, given the imminent launch of the iPad and anytime-now issuance of the U.S. Copyright Office's ruling regarding jailbreaking of the iPhone.

So what's in the Agreement? Here are a few troubling highlights:

Ban on Public Statements: As mentioned above, Section 10.4 prohibits developers, including government agencies such as NASA, from making any "public statements" about the terms of the Agreement. This is particularly strange, since the Agreement itself is not "Apple Confidential Information" as defined in Section 10.1. So the terms are not confidential, but developers are contractually forbidden from speaking "publicly" about them.

App Store Only: Section 7.2 makes it clear that any applications developed using Apple's SDK may only be publicly distributed through the App Store, and that Apple can reject an app for any reason, even if it meets all the formal requirements disclosed by Apple. So if you use the SDK and your app is rejected by Apple, you're prohibited from distributing it through competing app stores like Cydia or Rock Your Phone.

Ban on Reverse Engineering: Section 2.6 prohibits any reverse engineering (including the kinds of reverse engineering for interoperability that courts have recognized as a fair use under copyright law), as well as anything that would "enable others" to reverse engineer, the SDK or iPhone OS.

No Tinkering with Any Apple Products: Section 3.2(e) is the "ban on jailbreaking" provision that received some attention when it was introduced last year. Surprisingly, however, it appears to prohibit developers from tinkering with any Apple software or technology, not just the iPhone, or "enabling others to do so." For example, this could mean that iPhone app developers are forbidden from making iPods interoperate with open source software, for example.

You will not, through use of the Apple Software, services or otherwise create any Application or other program that would disable, hack, or otherwise interfere with the Security Solution, or any security, digital signing, digital rights management, verification or authentication mechanisms implemented in or by the iPhone operating system software, iPod Touch operating system software, this Apple Software, any services or other Apple software or technology, or enable others to do so

Kill Your App Any Time: Section 8 makes it clear that Apple can "revoke the digital certificate of any of Your Applications at any time." Steve Jobs has confirmed that Apple can remotely disable apps, even after they have been installed by users. This contract provision would appear to allow that.

We Never Owe You More than Fifty Bucks: Section 14 states that, no matter what, Apple will never be liable to any developer for more than $50 in damages. That's pretty remarkable, considering that Apple holds a developer's reputational and commercial value in its hands—it's not as though the developer can reach its existing customers anywhere else. So if Apple botches an update, accidentally kills your app, or leaks your entire customer list to a competitor, the Agreement tries to cap you at the cost of a nice dinner for one in Cupertino.

Overall, the Agreement is a very one-sided contract, favoring Apple at every turn. That's not unusual where end-user license agreements are concerned (and not all the terms may ultimately be enforceable), but it's a bit of a surprise as applied to the more than 100,000 developers for the iPhone, including many large public companies. How can Apple get away with it? Because it is the sole gateway to the more than 40 million iPhones that have been sold. In other words, it's only because Apple still "owns" the customer, long after each iPhone (and soon, iPad) is sold, that it is able to push these contractual terms on the entire universe of software developers for the platform.

In short, no competition among app stores means no competition for the license terms that apply to iPhone developers.

If Apple's mobile devices are the future of computing, you can expect that future to be one with more limits on innovation and competition (or "generativity," in the words of Prof. Jonathan Zittrain) than the PC era that came before. It's frustrating to see Apple, the original pioneer in generative computing, putting shackles on the market it (for now) leads. If Apple wants to be a real leader, it should be fostering innovation and competition, rather than acting as a jealous and arbitrary feudal lord. Developers should demand better terms and customers who love their iPhones should back them.

[This post now also available in Arabic -- thanks!]


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