Linux Distros and the Codec Conundrum

Codecs have been the topic of much heated conversation on the Linux blogs of late, thanks largely to all the recent controversy surrounding H.264.

Video compression, that is, and the technology that currently enables it in applications like Blu-ray Disc, YouTube videos and the iTunes Store. Cupertino loves the patent-encumbered H.264, not surprisingly; Microsoft does too.

The open source community? Not so much.

‘Nice Astroturf’

What’s gotten the goat of many FOSS fans is that Canonical has gone ahead and licensed H.264 for Ubuntu, rather than using an open alternative like Theora.

“It’s a great move for the Linux community, even if some ‘pure’ free and open source people disagree,” wrote Anonymous Coward on Slashdot, for example.

Then again: “Nice pre-written bit of astroturf,” shot back Concern.

The H spoke with the good folks over at Canonical for some explanation — apparently, the license mostly covers situations where a device was bought with Ubuntu pre-installed — but by then, the conversation had taken on a life of its own.

WebM and VP8

Soon afterward, TuxRadar conducted an Open Ballot on the question of whether Linux distros should ever license codecs, inspiring close to 50 spirited comments. (Sneak preview: “Yes!” and “Absolutely not!” were the fairly equally represented themes.)

Finally, just to mix it up even more, Google announced Wednesday that — along with Mozilla, Opera and more than 40 other publishers — it was launching the WebM Project, including VP8, an open codec that can run in HTML5 browsers without requiring Flash.

VP8’s promising potential notwithstanding, it remains to be seen what effect the WebM Project will have. In the meantime, Linux Girl thought it worth examining the fundamental question here, within the world of video compression and beyond. After all, a similar controversy is already under way in the OpenOffice community regarding free vs. closed plug-ins, as FOSS advocate Florian Mueller recently pointed out.

The underlying issue isn’t limited to video, in other words, so Linux Girl felt compelled to ask around: Is it ever acceptable for Linux distros to license codecs?

‘No One Should License Codecs’

“Sure, if they want to,” was Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza’s response. “I would certainly be happy to receive such a license if I bought a piece of hardware that came with licensed Linux.”

On the other hand: “No, but I’m glad they are,” countered Slashdot blogger David Masover.

“No one should license codecs,” Masover explained. “Google is planning to release VP8, and we already have Vorbis, which is more than good enough for audio. The terms of the H.264 licenses are absurd, and if you want better terms, it’s very costly.”

‘I’m Glad It’s Happening’

Open source projects, in particular, should avoid such licenses, Masover added.

“This means, for example, that anyone who forks Ubuntu will likely need their own, separate license,” he pointed out. “This is why Firefox refused to license h.264, though they’ve taken it to an extreme.”

Nevertheless, “I’m glad it’s happening,” Masover added. “There’s too much content already in h.264 and other codecs. Right now, Firefox supports HTML5 beautifully, but their refusal to implement h.264 in any way, even the free and legal ways they could be doing it right now, means that Firefox _cannot_ be made to work with YouTube’s HTML5 player.

“While I agree with Firefox’s stance in the sense that I don’t like software patents, and while I hope Google’s VP8 will solve a lot of these issues, the issue is that right now, there’s a lot of content out there in these proprietary codecs,” he explained. “This licensing should make it a lot easier for all of us who want to access that content, and it should make Ubuntu that much more attractive to new users.”

‘Too Important to Be Locked Up’

A “licensing mess” was what Slashdot blogger hairyfeet predicted for the situation.

“Just look at how many distros are based on Ubuntu,” he pointed out. “Are they all gonna be covered? I really doubt it.

“Say what you want about MSFT and Mono, but they are a whole lot less scary than MPEG-LA, which has pretty much made it clear they have NO problems with suing anyone that doesn’t pay up,” hairyfeet added.

“How can you even HAVE proprietary codecs in a GPL distro?” hairyfeet wondered. “I thought you had to be free to modify and distribute to be GPL? There is NO way that MPEG-LA or any other codec license holder is just gonna give GPL a free pass, no way no how.”

‘We May Have a Winner’

Ultimately, though, “the ability to communicate with sight and sound across the Internet is too important to be locked up behind a patent paywall,” he opined.

With Google’s support, VP8 could be what’s needed, hairyfeet added.

“Sadly, Theora is junk,” he asserted. On the other hand, “I’ve seen how VP6 in a flash wrapper looks really good and compares nicely to H.264; if VP8 is even better we may have a winner.”

‘I Suspect We’re Stuck’

Overall, “it’s a tough question” for Linux distros, Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack said.

“On the one hand, as FOSS supporters, they don’t want to encourage proprietary codecs,” he mused. “On the other hand, as an OS distributor they need to make sure as many things as possible work out of the box with no installs by the end user.

“I suspect we’re stuck until someone injects some sense into patent regulations,” Mack concluded.

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