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Multimedia Codecs: The Legal Path

Christopher Tozzi

February 17, 2010

3 Min Read
Multimedia Codecs: The Legal Path

If the American government invested as many resources rounding up violators of software licenses as it does fighting “terror” (and no, I don’t mean the Jacobin variety), I’d have been put away long ago, because all of my Ubuntu systems use patented multimedia software that I didn’t pay for.  But I’ve recently realized that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that legal codec support is easily available.  Here’s a look at some of those options.

Last week, we wrote about multimedia patents and their place within the free-software ecosystem.  As almost anyone who’s installed Ubuntu knows, the operating system doesn’t ship with patented multimedia codecs by default due to legal issues.

For most people, however, installing software to play MP3s and DVDs is simple enough.  In many cases, the system automatically prompts users to download the fully functional but legally ambiguous gstreamer-ugly plugins from Ubuntu’s repositories the first time they try to play media compressed using proprietary algorithms.  Where relevant, the pop-ups warn that using the software may be illegal in certain jurisdictions, but that hasn’t stopped anyone I know from clicking “OK”.

So chances are good that if you use Ubuntu for listening to music or watching videos, and you live in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan or any other country whose legal codes frown upon violation of software patents, you’re breaking the law, maybe without realizing it.

If you’re like me, this may not bother you very much.  There are much worse laws to break, after all.


But if you run a business, local government or other organization that can’t so easily disregard intellectual property laws, you have to think twice before installing patented multimedia codecs onto your Ubuntu system.

Fortunately for the growing number of organizations that deploy Ubuntu on their workstations, however, the gstreamer-ugly plugins are not the only way to enable patented multimedia playback.  Fluendo, a company based in Barcelona, offers legal codecs for a variety of patented formats, including MP3, MPEG2, MPEG4, H264, AAC, WMV and WMA.

Fluendo’s products, some of which are available in the Canonical store, are targeted at businesses and local governments that deploy Ubuntu and need legal support for popular multimedia formats, but are also available for individual use.  They range from MP3, codecs, which are free, to support for DVD playback.

Fluendo also develops its own media center application, called Fluoh.  Its codecs, however, will work with any gstreamer-compatible player, which includes most of those available in the Ubuntu repositories.

Why it matters

With most jurisdictions still lax about violations of software patents by Linux users, who remain a quantatively negligible group, the popularity of products like Fluendo’s may be limited.  But as Ubuntu’s user base grows, especially in the workplace, legal solutions for multimedia playback will become more and more important.

Legal alternatives to the gstreamer-ugly plugins are also crucial for demonstrating that Ubuntu is not a community of freeloaders and lawbreakers, as many opponents of the free-software movement often make it out to be.  Overcoming this negative image is essential if Ubuntu hopes to receive more attention from developers who traditionally work outside the open-source ecosystem.

Admittedly, I do my fair share of freeloading, and even lawbreaking, from time to time.  In spite of people like me, however, there are lot of Ubuntu users who are willing and eager to pay for software.  Solutions like Fluendo’s are increasingly important in meeting their needs.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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