Issues Surrounding Multimedia Playback

Since the advent of digital distribution, record companies and content producers have sought ways of restricting the ability of users to copy music and films. This usually means digital rights management (DRM), which often has the side effect of restricting playback of various media formats on noncommercial operating systems, as the DRM required to play back some music and video needs to be licensed. Audio and video playback technologies such as MP3 and MPEG are patented in countries that allow software to be patented, such as the United States. A patent protects the implementation of an idea, as opposed to copyright, which protects the actual software. Patents are designed to restrict distribution of a particular technology, which implements an idea or concept, unless permission is granted, usually via a payment to the license holder.

Because Linux is based on the sharing of computing technology and knowledge, organizations like Ubuntu (and Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu) are fundamentally and philosophically opposed to software patents. For this reason, as well as to avoid the risk of patent infringement lawsuits, they take care not to distribute such software, which is why MP3 playback is not supported by default within Ubuntu, for example. This doesn’t make playback of popular music and video files impossible, but it means that, out of the box, Ubuntu does not have the facility to play these formats. It is up to the user to download and install some extra software to do so if he or she wishes, although this is actually pretty easy as the process is automated.

Much more devastating than patenting is DRM, a technology tied into audio or video playback software. It’s designed to control how, where, when, and on what device you can play certain media. For example, until recently Apple’s iTunes DRM scheme meant that you could play back movies and some audio tracks bought from iTunes only on the iPod range of devices (including the Apple TV and iPhone range of devices) or using the iTunes software. DVD and Blu-ray disc players include forms of DRM, called the Content Scrambling System (CSS) and Advanced Access Content System (AACS), respectively, which prevent users from playing DVDs on computers unless special software is purchased. With Apple’s move away from DRM, and Amazon’s DRM-free MP3 store, the situation for audio tracks is getting better, but nearly all movie files remain affected.

As a community that celebrates openness, many Linux users and developers mistrust any technology that attempts to restrict their rights to use software in particular ways. Moreover, the relatively small user base and the preference for free rather than proprietary software has meant that no mainstream vendor has ported its DRM technology to Linux on the desktop. This means, for instance, that movies purchased via iTunes will not work on a Linux desktop.

Linux and other open source projects are very resourceful and are often able to reverse-engineer technology formats in order to get around DRM or patent issues. But the laws in many countries—the United States is a particularly strident example—prohibit reverse-engineering in this way. In addition, the laws in some countries seek to prohibit use of software resulting from this process. The good news is that programmers have also come up with open and free alternatives to proprietary formats. Examples include the Ogg Vorbis media format, which is every bit as good as MP3 but is unencumbered by patent issues. We look at using Ogg Vorbis, in the “Choosing a Format” section; it’s an excellent way of avoiding issues surrounding patenting. On the video side, no open source video format is yet in widespread use, but with Mozilla, Opera, Adobe, Google and many other vendors now backing the royalty-free WebM video format, the picture is likely to change very fast.

As an end user migrating to Ubuntu from Windows or Mac OS X, it’s likely you’ll want to add support for MP3 and popular video file playback formats, at least until you can switch over to free and open file formats. In this and the next chapter, we’re recommending that you install additional software to use in concert with Ubuntu’s built-in media players. Some of that software may have issues surrounding patenting, and in one case, is designed to break the encryption that protects the content on DVD movie discs. Although we can’t of course provide you with any legal guarantee for your particular jurisdiction, you may be reassured to know that, to our knowledge, no end user has ever had any legal hassle as a result of installing and using this software.