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.
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.