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App reviews are unpredictable…

iCab Mobile 6.8.1 was just (End of January 2013)  released in the AppStore.

This update was supposed to be just a small and quick bugfix release for one issue with the Pocket sync feature. When the reading list was linked to a Pocket account and this account contains a very large number of bookmarks (many thousands), a bug within iCab Mobile could slow down the processing of these bookmarks while syncing so that the App could be terminated by the iOS. And because in this case iCab never gets the chance to finish the initial sync, the same happened when the App was started again. This is now fixed with the new update.

When submitting the update to Apple I didn’t expect any problems, so I assumed it would be available in the AppStore after the usual 5 days, which Apple needs until they actually review the App.

But unfortunately I was wrong. Apple rejected the update. The reason was not the bugfix, they rejected the App because of a feature that was available for years in iCab Mobile and which is also available in hundreds of other Apps in the AppStore. They rejected the App because it is able to download videos from YouTube so you can watch the videos offline.

You’ll find some more thoughts about this below.

I told them why I think their decision is wrong, but I don’t really expect an answer from Apple. I’ve never got any responses to complaints in the past.

So I added some code to block downloads from youtube, added the information to the release notes for the AppStore that I had to block downloads from youtube, and submitted the App to Apple again. 5 days later Apple started the review and I expected it would now be accepted for the release, but I was wrong…

This time Apple did not complain about the features of the App, they rejected the App because I mentioned in the AppStore description that I had to block downloads from YouTube… And as the reason for this, they cited item 3.3 from the AppStore guidelines: “Apps with descriptions not relevant to the application content and functionality will be rejected”.

I’m forced to “change” a certain feature of the App, and informing the users that the feature does no longer work as before should be “not relevant”??? What? Are they kidding me?

I’ve asked Apple what this is about and why I’m not allowed to tell the users about this, but as usually no answer from Apple.
I’m sorry about all this. I do know that especially many teachers are using the download feature for videos in their classes and this is not possible anymore.

But at least you can still download videos from many other sources and also download other files.
Some general thoughts about this topic:

With the initial rejection Apple referred to item 8.5 of the AppStore guidelines which says that the “use of protected 3rd party material (trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, otherwise proprietary content) requires a documented rights check which must be provided upon request” and also to the Youtube TOS which does not allow the download of any content.

While the latter (the YouTube TOS) somehow makes a little bit sense, the first statements does not. Item 8.5 of the guideline is most likely referring to icons, logos and other copyright-protected material which is used as integral part of an App, its App icon, its artwork and User interface etc. Of course I need licenses to use copyright-protected material in my Apps this way. But I do not use any material this way in iCab Mobile.

A general web browser does not “use” copyright protected material on web sites. What browsers are doing is to load web sites on behalf of the user, which of course also includes texts, photos, artwork, logos, videos, audio files and much more, and all of this content can be copyright protected. And it is obvious that a browser is supposed to do this and it is obvious that this copyright-material is not part of the browser, does not belong to the browser. Also all browsers (including Apple’s own Safari) explicitly allow the user to save the content of web sites. Texts and pictures can be saved and transferred to other Apps using Copy & Paste. Photos, files and even whole web sites can be saved.
And according to laws and licenses there’s no real difference between a text, a photo, an audio file or a video or any other content. Depending of the license or the copyright which applies to the content, there are limitations in what the user is allowed to do with the content. And this is something the browser can not decide. The browser can not know what the user would like to do with the text, the photo, the video or other content he wants to save or copy, the browser can not know anything about the license that is bound to the material. This is something the user is responsible for. So in my opinion, it’s not really a solution to anything to force a browser to block downloads from a certain site.

Besides, there are millions of videos on Youtube which are under the creative commons license CC-By which explicitly allows to share, mix, redistribute, there are also laws like “fair use” (US) and “private use” (Germany) and similar laws in other countries, which do allow users to use even copyright-protected material under certain conditions (like for educational purposes, for your own private usage). So there’s nothing illegal in downloading content per se, at least if the content itself is provided legally on the web site.
If Apple is serious about this, where does this end? In the future, do browsers need to switch off Copy & Paste to prevent users of copying articles from the new york times, or other copyright-protected texts? Will Apple remove the ability to save, copy & paste text and photos and download files in its own Safari? I doubt it, but what makes the Youtube videos so special that an App must prevent saving these, but is still allowed to save all the other content?

 

Another aspect what I’m concerned about is the lack of communication from Apple. The reasons why they reject an App are often hard to understand, especially if they cite a certain item of their guidelines, which doesn’t really match the case.

Even if Apple is calling you by phone because they want you to remove a certain feature, it’s difficult to talk to them. Some time ago I got such a phone call, requesting to cut down the “modules” feature of iCab Mobile. It would violate one of the developer guidelines, and when I asked about this guideline or anything else, I only got the answer “I can not tell”. This was a really strange conversation, Q:”What did I wrong?”, A:”I can not tell”, Q:”Was it a developer guideline that I missed?”, A:”I can not tell” Q:”What ever?”, A:”I can not tell” etc.
Several weeks later Apple released a new version of their guidelines and I found a new term in it which is probably the one they were referring to when they requested to remove certain aspects of the modules features. Then I knew why he could not tell me anything… The new guidelines were probably still under NDA, so he was not allowed to tell me which of the new, not-yet existing, rules I did violate in my App… (just kidding, frankly I don’t know what I should think about this phone call, it was just very strange ;-)

Also they are not very consistent in their decisions. There are Apps released to the AppStore even after Apple has rejected my App, which not only have the same feature (Downloading youtube videos for offline viewing), but which also explicitly advertise this feature in the description and in the screenshots for the AppStore. Apple allows these Apps to do something which my App is not allowed to do anymore.

 

Posted in Programming.