CERIAS - Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Skip Navigation
Purdue University
Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Legit Linux Codecs In the U.S.


As a beginner Linux user, I only recently realized that few people are aware or care that they are breaking U.S. law by using unlicensed codecs.  Even fewer know that the codecs they use are unlicensed, or what to do about it.  Warning dialogs (e.g., in Ubuntu) provide no practical alternative to installing the codecs, and are an unwelcome interruption to workflow.  Those warnings are easily forgotten afterwards, perhaps despite good intentions to correct the situation.  Due to software patents in the U.S., codecs from sound to movies such as h.264 need to be licensed, regardless of how unpalatable the law may be, and of how this situation is unfair to U.S. and Canadian citizens compared to other countries.  This impacts open source players such as Totem, Amarok, Mplayer or Rythmbox.  The CERIAS security seminars, for example, use h.264.  The issue of unlicensed codecs in Linux was brought up by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, who was heavily criticized for not knowing about, or not mentioning, fluendo.com and other ways of obtaining licensed codecs. 

Fluendo Codecs
So, as I like Ubuntu and want to do the legal thing, I went to the Fluendo site and purchased the “mega-bundle” of codecs.  After installing them, I tried to play a CERIAS security seminar.  I was presented with a prompt to install 3 packs of codecs which require licensing.  Then I realized that the Fluendo set of codecs didn’t include h.264!  Using Fluendo software is only a partial solution.  When contacted, Fluendo said that support for h.264, AAC and WMS will be released “soon”.

Another suggestion is using Quicktime for Windows under Wine.  I was able to do this, after much work;  it’s far from being as simple as running Synaptic, in part due to Apple’s web site being uncooperative and the latest version of Quicktime, 7.2, not working under Wine.  However, when I got it to work with an earlier version of Quicktime, it worked only for a short while.  Now it just displays “Error -50: an unknown error occurred” when I attempt to play a CERIAS security seminar. 

VideoLAN Player vs MPEG LA
The VideoLAN FAQ explains why VideoLAN doesn’t license the codecs, and suggests contacting MPEG LA.  I did just that, and was told that they were unwilling to let me pay for a personal use license.  Instead, I should “choose a player from a licensed supplier (or insist that the supplier you use become licensed by paying applicable royalties)”.  I wish that an “angel” (a charity?) could intercede and obtain licenses for codecs in their name, perhaps over the objections of the developers, but that’s unlikely to happen.

What to do
Essentially, free software users are the ball in a game of ping-pong between free software authors and licensors.  Many users are oblivious to this no man’s land they somehow live in,  but people concerned about legitimacy can easily be put off by it.  Businesses in particular will be concerned about liabilities.  I conclude that Adrian was right in flagging the Linux codec situation.  It is a handicap for computer users in the U.S. compared to countries where licensing codecs isn’t an issue.

One solution would be to give up Ubuntu (for example) and getting a Linux distribution that bundles licensed codecs such as Linspire (based on Ubuntu) despite the heavily criticized deal they made with Microsoft.  This isn’t about being anti-Microsoft, but about divided loyalties.  Free software, for me, isn’t about getting software for free, even though that’s convenient.  It’s about appreciating the greater assurances that free software provides with regards to divided loyalties and the likelihood of software that is disloyal by design.  Now Linspire may have or in the future get other interests in mind besides those of its users.  This deal being part of a vague but threatening patent attack on Linux by Microsoft also makes Linspire unappealing.  Linspire is cheap, so cost isn’t an issue;  after all getting the incomplete set of codecs from Fluendo ($40) cost me almost as much as getting the full version of Linspire ($49) would have.  Regardless,  Linspire may be an acceptable compromise for many businesses.  Another advantage of Linspire is that they bundle a licensed DVD player as well (note that the DMCA, and DVD CCA license compliance, are separate issues from licensing codecs such as h.264).

Another possibility is to keep around an old Mac or use lab computers until Fluendo releases the missing codecs.  Even if CERIAS was to switch to Theora just to please me, the problem would surface again later.  So, there are options, but they aren’t optimal. 


Posted by Legit Linux Codecs In the U.S. — Ceriously &
on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 07:21 AM

[...] Legit Linux Codecs In the U.S. [...]

Posted by dave
on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 09:30 AM

i think you’ve missed some of the nuances of codecs, at least with respect to mpeg. while the burden of license for use is in part placed on the consumer, producers can also license the codec in such a way to cover the consumer. cerias being the producer of h.264 encoded content (excellent series btw!) could (should?) assume the license burden and not pass it on to the consumer -if they haven’t already.

Posted by Adler
on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 05:31 PM

Hi All,

I’m sure that this is all cool!.

My Web Site is hosted somewhere on Servers that can be moved. My Sites are Open Source. A Blog is going to also moved around.

Yet, Netflix, after enrollment will not allow me to view videos without Microsoft installed.

I should take that to a lawyers, or it is the the fact that I run Linux, and Firefox?

I’m book marking this.

JJMacey aka Adler

Posted by Wade
on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 06:25 PM

Fluendo codecs are available to OpenSUSE 10.3 users in the USA to legally play MP3 and MPEG.  Yes, the installation takes longer than Ubuntu, but it takes less time than installing Windows.  Windows doesn’t give you DVD codecs either, those are from your drive manufacturer…so keep that software (CD or DVD) that came with it.

Posted by Adam Williamson
on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 06:47 PM

“As a beginner Linux user, I only recently realized that few people are aware or care that they are breaking U.S. law by using unlicensed codecs.”

IANAL, but I don’t believe they are.

At least where the issue is patents (and not reverse-engineering copy protection systems), patent law applies to the *supply* of infringing products, not their use. It is against patent law to distribute something that infringes on someone else’s patent. *Using* something that infringes on someone else’s patent is fine.

This means there’s a gigantic loophole for software patents - source code. Source code is considered a ‘blueprint’ in patent law terms, hence its distribution does not infringe upon patent laws. This is why the LAME guys can happily include the source code for LAME on their website. As I understand it (again, IANAL), if you download the source code for something patent infringing - LAME, x264, whatever - compile it on your own system for your own private use, and then use it, no-one has broken any laws. Everything’s hunky dory. This is also the ‘most’ free software solution, of course.

Even in the binary case - technically speaking, you the user have not broken any laws when you download a binary copy of LAME or whatever and use it. The parties who *supplied* that binary are the ones who technically infringed upon the patent laws.

Of course, a bit of shameless self-promotion: Mandriva Linux 2008 Powerpack includes the complete Fluendo codec pack, installed and configured out of the box. It also includes LinDVD, a licensed DVD player.

Adam Williamson

Posted by John
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 02:29 AM

Wade is right..

Everyone using Windows and has downloaded and used DVD-player-software without paying for the codec is in deep, deep trouble. Wow!

So - lets face it. This problem is not Linux-only. It’s a problem for all users in the U.S. that use an non-free non-payed-for codec on any operating system. That includes Windows too.

Man - I’m so glad I dont live in the U.S.  Not only the codec situation is a mess, but look at the absolutely brain dead patent thingies. It is a miracle innovation still takes place. Or has it already grinded down to a complete halt by now?

Posted by David T.
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 02:55 AM

“...Businesses in particular will be concerned about liabilities.”

I don’t get this. If a business is using Linux on a desktop they will make sure that the user can’t install software on their Linux machine so there won’t be any liabilities since they can’t install unlawful multimedia codecs. You also seem to forget that you are talking multimedia here. How many businesses require their users to have multimedia capabilities on their PC’s? Companies will probably like the idea that their users can’t play mp3’s, video’s, spend time on youtube etc. In open landscape environments, speakers are not included in the PC setups that users get so listening to sound of any kind is frowned upon unless you have earphones - and those are can be frowned upon as well by some. I simply don’t see this as an issue…

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 03:34 AM

Wade, are you saying that Fluendo offers more codecs for OpenSUSE than for Ubuntu?  I see no indication of that on their web site.

Posted by me
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 03:36 AM

An faster and more convenient way would be to simply leave the US…

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 03:48 AM

I’m not finding evidence matching your statements in the licensing terms for h.264 (http://www.mpegla.com/avc/AVC_TermsSummary.pdf).  I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that licensing for the decoder on a PC is completely separate from the licensing for content providers.  I see no way for a content provider to legitimize a decoder used on a PC, even if it was used just for watching their content (how would you prove that anyway).

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 03:52 AM

Adler,  I have never used Netflix and have no idea what you’re talking about.  Sorry I can’t help you.

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 10:34 AM

Good point, businesses can control software installation.  Whether it’s an issue depends on what the employees are expected or allowed to do, for example, watching training videos or tele-conferencing.  It varies a lot, but there are surely some businesses, or some employees, that need some non-free codecs.

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 10:38 AM

Good point, unlicensed codecs can be found for other platforms, e.g., VideoLAN for Windows.  However, aren’t there plenty of legal ones available for Windows, with no gap for h.264?  My problem is that I can’t get one for Ubuntu.

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 11:04 AM

Thanks for the pertinent information about Mandriva;  I didn’t exclude it on purpose, just by ignorance.

It’s true that the licensing terms for h.264, for example, apply to manufacturers and video content or service providers. 
However, Wikipedia says: “Any party that manufactures, <strong>uses</strong>, sells, or offers for sale patented technology, during the term of the patent and within the country that issued the patent, is considered to infringe the patent.” (emphasis mine)

“In United States law, an infringement may occur where the defendant has made, used, sold, offered to sell, or imported an infringing invention or its equivalent. [1]”

So, using it would be an infringement.  I am not a lawyer either but when I download the source code or binary from another country, am I not importing it as well? (see above)

I don’t buy the loophole argument either, because if the source code is the blueprint then when you compile it you are making an infringing device, which is also an infringement according to the above.

You can always hope that for personal use, nobody will bother to come after you for $0.10.  However I wouldn’t count on common sense prevailing, given the RIAA lawsuits.  Besides, if someone doesn’t have integrity for $0.10, I’m not sure that they should be trusted for anything.  I think that keeping your integrity in unimportant cases where no-one will know or care, but you benefit immediately at the click of a button, is hard but important.

Posted by Pascal Meunier
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 11:21 AM

I like working at CERIAS too much, and I have great friends, colleagues and neighbors.  Besides, Canada has the same software patent issues, unfortunately (I’m Canadian).

Posted by Boycott Novell » Is Europe Being Assimilated
on Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 06:51 PM

[...] The short answer is that it’s complicated, but Europe’s stance appears to have weakened, which is appalling. Just take a look at what American users need to cope with, based on this new blog item. [...]

Leave a comment

Commenting is not available in this section entry.