Apple iPhone Developer Agreement Made Public

Dear developers, you have no power, no recourse beyond $50 and are at our complete mercy.

NASA has an iPhone app and the mere fact that this government agency chose to develop one means that the EFF was able to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the Apple iPhone developer agreement – the closely guarded document which gives Apple the power to pull applications at will and be the final arbiter of what apps make it into the iTunes App Store.

As pointed out by ZDnet’s Jason O’Grady and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Fred von Lohman, here are some of the important items contained in this 33 page document:

  • A ban on public statements, forbidding developers to speak about the agreement.
  • Apps made with the iPhone software development kit can only be distributed through the App Store, meaning rejected apps can’t be served through the underground app store Cydia, for instance.
  • Apple indemnifies itself against developer liability surpassing $50, meaning if developers get sued, Apple will be liable for no more than $50 in damages.
  • No reverse engineering or enabling others to reverse-engineer, the iPhone SDK.
  • No messing with Apple products. That means no apps that enable modifying or hacking Apple products are allowed.
  • Apple can “revoke digital certification of any of Your Applications at any time.” No surprise there: Your app can be pulled even if it’s already been approved, which we’ve already seen happen a number of times.

In addition, here are some points which I thought were worth highlighting:

  • You must adhere to all privacy laws.
  • You must let users know that GPS could be inaccurate at times.
  • You can’t disable Apple warnings and other systems.
  • You must adhere to Apple user interface guidelines.
  • Your programs can’t contain malware, viruses, etc.
  • If your app uses the cellular network it must not in Apple’s reasonable judgment excessively use or unduly burden network capacity or bandwidth.

The agreement is surprisingly easy to read and devoid of legalize – it may be one of the smoothest long contracts I have read in fact and it shows Apple believes in simplicity even when dealing with a complex issue such as this. In general the agreement really limits the rights of developers but on balance there seems to be nothing earth shattering in it. What it reinforces to me of course is that Apple can kick you out of the app store at any time it chooses and for any reason it likes. We know Apple likes to control the user experience but it seems these terms are not consistent with the free markets we have come to love about the US and computing in general. I am not saying Apple is exerting too much power but then again if you had to summarize the document in a few words it would read: Dear developers, you have no power, no recourse beyond $50 and are at our complete mercy.

It is worth sharing von Lohman’s thoughts in conclusion:

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.

Here is the full iPhone developer agreement.

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