Canonical Opens Codec Sales and Potential Can of Worms

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 18, 2008

This week, Canonical opened sales of legal multimedia codecs and DVD playback software to all Ubuntu users, regardless of whether the distribution was pre-installed on a purchased system or downloaded gratis from an Ubuntu mirror.

Fluendo handles the bulk of the codecs using the GStreamer framework. CyberLink offers DVD playback through a Linux version of its PowerDVD software.

It feels the most positive word that can be applied to this announcement is "bittersweet." There are many more colorfully negative words that are applicable, as well.

To be clear, it is certainly possible to get proprietary multimedia codecs and DVD playback capabilities running in Linux, free of charge. It's actually fairly simple. And depending on the codec, or your country of residence, it could also be illegal.

It is hard to imagine that Canonical won't get a certain amount of grief for this offering, and that doesn't seem right. On the one hand, they aren't able to legally redistribute these codecs. So instead, they've opted to open an area in the storefront that makes downloading and installing purchased codecs work similarly to installing with Synaptic. They've made it so that a complete reinstall of a system won't require another codec purchase. They've made the best out of the situation.

Is there something inherently distasteful about needing this software in the first place? Is it troubling that a legally-procured DVD can't be played, just as it is, in a computer's DVD drive? Yes -- a loud, emphatic yes.

But Canonical and Ubuntu -- and ultimately Linux end users -- don't have a lot of great options, at least in the short term. Canonical could simply not offer the proprietary codecs at all. Users would either need to convert their media to open formats, acquire new media in open formats, or abandon the idea of listening or viewing media they've purchased on their Linux machines.

Realistically, of course, a far greater percentage of Linux users would do what is done presently. They have computers, they have media -- and they want to use them. These users would continue to install the codecs despite local laws prohibiting their use.

Canonical surely realizes that there are many Linux users who will use the available gratis codecs they find online. They still opted to partner with Fluendo and CyberLink to offer proprietary codecs legally. Why?

They could have taken the approach that every last Ubuntu user is vested in the "free as in speech" aspect of open source and does not own a single piece of media in a proprietary format. That would have been seen through immediately as either a blatant lie or delusional thinking. Or they could have thumbed their noses at the intellectual property laws in several countries, and refused to offer a legal alternative on the grounds that the laws are simply restrictive and misguided.

The laws are misguided. They are restrictive. They are still legally binding, though, and it is not Canonical's call to encourage (or require) that any Linux user violate them. For this reason, Canonical is doing the right thing in offering a legal alternative.

The bittersweetness? Some will see this as another example of how proprietary formats are hopelessly broken, defy the law, and use the freely available but legally questionable codecs without a word. There are others who will be reminded (or discover for the first time) that the laws governing technology and intellectual property need revision, and rather than circumventing the law, will push for change.