Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Illegal Codecs Put Me Off Linux

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Comment on “Illegal Codecs Put Me Off Linux.”

OK, I’ll be honest with you, the more I use Linux, the more I’m warming to it. In fact, the more exposure I have to the latest Ubuntu distro (7.04, Feisty Fawn) the more I want to integrate it into my existing ecosystem of PCs.I’m especially interested in rolling out Ubuntu onto older PCs and notebooks where installing Windows will put too much of a strain on the hardware. But there’s one aspect of Ubuntu, and Linux in general for that matter, that’s putting me off. This is the fact that to play a DVD or use WMA/WMV files I have to install codecs that are technically illegal to use.

Linux has a number of really strong points that go beyond the price (reliability, ease of use and low hardware requirements to name but a few), but the operating system falls short when it comes to legally supporting file formats such as MP3, WMA/WMV and DVDs. It’s not that you don’t have support for these formats available, it’s that adding support means entering into some really shady legal territory.

Here are some examples. Let’s say that you have Ubuntu and you try to play an MP3 file using Totem Movie Player. The long and the short of it is that you can’t because a codec is needed. What’s good is that Ubuntu goes off and figures out which codec you want and makes it available to you. The problem is that the codec falls into a category called “restricted software” and you are faced with a dialog box containing the following wording when you try to install the codec:

The use of some of this software may be restricted in some countries. You must verify that one of the following is true:

1. These restrictions do not apply in your country of legal residence.

2. You have permission to use this software (for example, a patent license).

3. You are using this software for research purposes only.

You verify that you are allowed to install the codecs by clicking on a button marked OK, or decline by clicking Cancel. Now I don’t know about you, but every time I’m faced by that dialog box I have an urge to call my lawyer to find out whether the codec is legal in my country of residence or whether my use of the codec can fall neatly under the “research purposes” umbrella.

OK, I’m fully aware that this dialog box is an example of legalese sleight-of-hand where the liability for using the codec is passed from whoever is offering it to the end user, but it’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with Linux and the concept of free software. Free software is great in isolation, but as soon as you have a situation where you’re trying to integrate it with modern proprietary file formats, the idea falls apart at the seams. Sure, steer clear of MP3/WMV/WMA/DVD and you’re fine. But it’s difficult to defend the concept of open source to someone who’s trying to find a legal way to get their MP3 collection to work on Linux.

These legal stumbling blocks put Linux at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Mac OS, where most file formats simply work (OK, I’m choosing to ignore any kind of DRM-protected file formats – but the kind of person who goes out and buys DRMed content is unlikely to be interested in Linux).

Things are no better if you choose to take the route that Michael Dell takes with his own personal Linux-powered PC and install Automatix in order to get support for restricted formats. (No matter how much Michael Dell likes Automatix, he doesn’t like it enough to bundle it on Ubuntu-powered Dell systems.) Automatix presents me with a warning that’s far stronger than the one I saw earlier:

Please NOTE that downloading and installing w32codecs, libdvdcss2 and other non-free codecs without paying a fee to the concerned authorities constitutes a CRIME in the United State of America.

The message continues like this for a couple more paragraphs and I’m left wondering: who are these codecs aimed at? People who just don’t mind breaking the law (like file-sharers) or people who never read EULAs and dialog boxes and simply click the OK button? Again, we’re faced with a reason why Linux is aimed at geeks rather than the average home user who simply want legal built-in support for modern file types.

For me, this is a pretty good reason to keep giving my money to Microsoft (or Apple, I’ve started giving money to Steve Jobs lately) rather than making a switch to Linux.While I could live without DVD support on most of my systems, not having legal support for other common proprietary file formats (especially MP3, MPEG and WMV/WMA) is a total deal breaker.

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