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Removal of App Store's first emulator leaves more questions than answers

Emulator app iGBA is accused of copying another developer's work without license

The controversial GBA4iOS clone that hit the top of the App Store is gone, and the rules Apple cited for its removal leave us with more questions than answers about the future of emulators on the platform.

Shortly after Apple changed its App Store rules to allow for game console emulators to be submitted, the first few are beginning to become available. However, one of them, iGBA, is now accused of being a knock-off of GBA4iOS by Riley Testut.

Posting on Mastodon, Testut goes on to say that he is not criticizing iGBA developer Mattia La Spina, only Apple. He is frustrated that "Apple took the time to change the App Store rules to allow emulators, and then approved a knock-off of my own app — even though I've been ready to launch Alt Store with Delta since March 5."

Alt Store has reportedly been in Testflight for a year. So an App Store reviewer would have had the ability and time to compare iGBA with Delta, Testut's latest version of GBA4iOS, if they knew to look.

With thousands of apps being submitted, it's easy to see how one reviewer could miss that a near-identical app was in Testflight. However, AppleInsider confirms that there are elements of iGBA that should have raised concerns at the review stage.

For instance, the app features location tracking when there is no game-related reason for it. Plus users report that the game, while free to download, is replete with ads.

Testut does make his code open-source, but there is a condition that limits the license.

"I explicitly give permission for anyone to use, modify, and distribute all my original code for this project in any form, with or without attribution, without fear of legal consequences," says his licence on Github "unless you plan to submit your app to Apple's App Store, in which case written permission from me is explicitly required."

Neither Apple nor the developer of iGBA have commented publicly. However, following reports of the app breaking Testut's licence, it has been removed from the App Store.

However, this is a further example of apps, even fraudulent ones, getting on the App Store when Apple's review team should catch them. It comes, too, as Apple decries having been forced to allow alternative app stores in the EU, because it says that they are inherently unsafe.

The removal of iGBA

On Sunday evening, the controversial app was removed. Apple cited the two sections of the App Store review guidelines, over copyright violations and spam. Spam seems the easiest to codify, given the volume of ads on the app.

However, copyright violations is harder to quantify. This may be over misuse of open source code, but it may be about the ability for users to load their own ROM files.

As we've mentioned before, the concept of emulation is legal. What is not legal is using ROM files that the user does not own, or source code from the manufacturers to make the emulators.

Apple's specific requirements say that add-ons and ROMs must comply with several guidelines, and all applicable laws. So, the specifics of the copyright violation part aren't clear.

Time will tell what Apple's actual stance is on the matter. It will take more emulators to get submitted for publication — and more approvals or rejections — to suss out Apple's stance on user-loaded ROM files.

Updated 4/15 6:26 AM Added more discussion about the removal of the iGBA app.