Multimedia Codecs and Moral Quandaries
I wrote recently about legal concerns involving multimedia patents on Ubuntu, and how to obtain licensed codecs without breaking the law. But I didn’t give much thought to the philosophical side of the issue. That’s an important topic in the Ubuntu community, so I’m catching up with it here.
The incorporation of proprietary software into Ubuntu has long been a touchy issue. Even where legal ambiguities are not in play–as in the case of closed-source video drivers or Adobe’s flash plugin–there are those who object to the use of proprietary software in any form, even if it’s the only reasonable way to achieve vital functionality.
Fortunately, those voices are few and far between these days (either that, or they’ve moved onto other, “Freer” distributions), and Ubuntu developers are able to place pragmatism before philosophy when it comes to putting proprietary hardware drivers and other essential closed-source software in the Ubuntu repositories.
The Argument for Ogg
Patented multimedia codecs, however, are a little different from proprietary drivers and firmware, for reasons discussed in my first post on the topic. There are people–for example, a commenter on a previous post named markit–who remain passionately opposed to the use of restrictively licensed codecs and can make well reasoned arguments to support their stance, particularly since fully functional GPL-friendly equivalents are available for multimedia codecs.
The arguments against the use of patented codecs are not without merit. By using formats like MP3 and MPEG-2 rather than GPL’d alternatives, users perpetuate dependence on proprietary software, which is antithetical to the Ubuntu philosophy.
The obvious response to such arguments, of course, is that while it would be nice to use only patent-free codecs, that’s not a realistic goal for most people. You can’t send .ogg files to Windows users and expect them to know how to open them, and you won’t have many friends if you refuse to accept data in non-free formats.
I was interested in the opinion of Fluendo’s employees on this topic, since they sell patented multimedia codecs to Linux users while affirming their commitment to free software. In other words, their company, which describes itself as committed to software freedom “without renouncing the model of a profitable and attractive business,” straddles the awkward line between advancing open-source development while recognizing the inevitable need of many users for proprietary software.
When I asked Viktor Nordstrom, a member of Fluendo’s corporate sales team, for his take on the use of patented codecs on open-source operating systems, his response centered around the practical inevitability of such software. “It’s not about opinion,” he said. “It’s the truth of the matter.”
Viktor and I went on to discuss whether the sale of patented multimedia codecs to Linux users–which is Fluendo’s chief product–perpetuates dependence on non-free formats and countervails the cause of software freedom. Viktor’s response again centered on the pragmatic middle line, emphasizing that the company’s aim is to provide an answer to a problem that can’t be avoided for many Linux users. “We believe we have found a solution that respects open-source,” he said.
The bottom line
Ultimately, the multimedia-codec question, like the other great imponderables of our age (e.g.: “When did time begin?” “Where does space end?” “Is Richard Stallman’s craigslist personal real?”), has no perfect answer. The Ubuntu community will likely never be in agreement on the issue.
But for my money, the current system is about as good as it gets. Ubuntu ships only with GPL-compatible codecs by default, but makes it easy (in most cases) to download patented codecs if a user needs them to play a file. It wouldn’t hurt to make it clearer to users that there are legal alternatives, like those sold by Fluendo, to the gstreamer-ugly plugins available in the Ubuntu repositories. But from a philosophical perspective, Canonical’s coping the best it can with an imperfect world.