January 31, 2007

Fluendo media decoders sound bad to open source advocates

Author: Nathan Willis

Thanks to Fluendo, Linux and Solaris users on a variety of processor architectures can now purchase playback support for patent-encumbered audio and video formats. Similar support from free alternatives, whether they rely on copying Windows DLLs or use original code, all violate existing patent law. The mere existence of Fluendo's plugins needles a bevy of critics, but Fluendo is prepared to answer them all. And in an ironic twist, sales of these decoders for non-free formats are funding the development of free alternatives.

The Fluendo Web Shop, launched earlier this month, offers playback components for the MP3, Dolby AC3, and Windows Media Audio (WMA) audio formats; the MPEG2, MPEG4 Part 2 (better known as DivX), and Windows Media Video (WMV) video formats; the Windows Media streaming protocol (MMS); and the various container formats associated with each. The MP3 decoder is free of charge, the other single-format decoders are €7 apiece, and multi-format bundles are available at discount rates. All are plugins for the open source GStreamer media framework that powers players such as Rhythmbox, Amarok, Totem, and many more.

All of the aforementioned decoders are available for 32-bit i386 and 64-bit x86_64 Linux. In addition, the Windows Media and MP3 decoders are also available for PowerPC Linux, Solaris on Intel, and Solaris on SPARC.

The downloads come as a compressed TAR archive containing the binary plugins themselves, installation instructions for each, and a license file for each. Installation is a straightforward matter of copying the binary plugins to a directory in GStreamer's plugin search path -- normally /usr/lib/gstreamer-0.10, but ~/.gstreamer-0.10/plugins will work for those without root access. Christian Schaller of Fluendo explained that the low-tech installation method was the only option guaranteed to work across all distros and all architectures.

As hinted at by the above directory names, you must have GStreamer 0.10 or newer installed. And the plugins are compiled against glibc 2.4, so be sure your distribution uses that and not the older glibc 2.3. The simplest way to verify what glibc you have is through your distro's package management program; if that is not an option you can also check the output of ldd --version

Each purchase is licensed for use on one machine, so if you were thinking that you could buy one copy and install it for all of your friends and neighbors, think again. On the plus side, if you purchase the "Megabundle" containing all the plugins, you get free copies of all new decoders added to the bundle over the coming year. Schaller has hinted that AAC, H.264, and Real Media decoders are coming, but he has not fixed a timetable.

Strong feelings and misunderstandings

Fluendo's sale of audio/video decoders has riled many detractors, who have posted comments on public discussion forums like Slashdot, Digg, or Ars Technica. The objections fall into three categories. Some disapprove of software patents wholesale, some exhibit a general distrust of the media industry (including patent holders and proponents of the formats in question), and some are frustrated at the legal obligations imposed by linking patent-encumbered plugins with GPLed media players.

Nevertheless, Schaller says the company has experienced brisk sales in the first week of the plugins' availability, and, interestingly enough, most of the transaction volume has come from site-wide business deployments -- which require contacting Fluendo's sales staff directly. "For instance I already have several requests for site deployments into organizations with over a thousand desktops each, so the shop functions just as much as an advertisement/testing channel for us as opposed to the primary channel for the actual sale." By testing channel, Schaller explains, "I mean that their sysadmin buys one plugin to test on his own system, before they contact us for a site license."

Fluendo commits heavy development resources to free software projects such as GStreamer, the Flumotion streaming media server, and the Totem media player, a fact often overlooked or selectively ignored by those criticizing the company's sale of proprietary plugins. It also does contract work on multimedia codecs for the embedded market, an area where Schaller says GStreamer uptake has far exceeded expectations.

On the patent question, Fluendo's official stance is that it opposes software patents, but that in areas where they are the law, it has no choice but to obey the statutes. Perhaps more importantly, customers have no choice either. Some critics of Fluendo's plugin products are quick to point out that there are freely available, often GPLed libraries that decode the same formats. That is, however, irrelevant: the non-free formats are non-free not because of the license on the source code, but because of the patents on the format.

Wherever possible, Fluendo encourages its customers to use patent-free formats. "In GStreamer we try to make sure Ogg and Dirac support everything that is possible to do with the non-free formats. So at the end of the day we feel that by moving people toward Linux and now Solaris, and to using an open source framework like GStreamer which has top-notch support for free codecs, we do more good than evil for the goal of removing the plight of patented codecs, even if our way of achieving that is by offering those non-free codecs for sale."

Formatting for the future

Schaller disagrees with the notion that providing plugins for non-free formats does harm to the free formats. After all, demand is driven by the availability of media, not the availability of decoders. Fluendo sees this in its work with embedded developers, but it is true on the desktop as well. "Just as their MP3 files make people want MP3 support, so their iPod and other music players make them want/require encoders for formats supported by their player in question."

In the future, Schaller says, the success of free formats will depend on free software developers' ability to take the lead in new channels. He notes that Fluendo's developers have been strong proponents of making the Ogg formats the default in all GNOME applications, but in spite of the fact that Vorbis is technically superior to MP3, MP3 is still the more popular format.

"What will make a difference is whether we can manage to establish ourselves in new market segments where old formats are not so strongly entrenched by existing media. For instance, we hope to push Dirac as a preferred format for people doing high definition video outside of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. And free codecs have the advantage that if we do manage to reach some kind of critical mass with them then the fact that they are free will take care of the rest. The problem of course is managing to reach that critical mass level."

In light of the strong feelings some people have about patents, media formats, and free software advocacy, Fluendo will probably continue to have detractors because it is supporting non-free formats. But as the only vendor to supply legitimate decoders for these patent-encumbered media formats, Fluendo does the community at large a tremendous service by clarifying the issue.

The playback for patent-encumbered formats in many free players such as Xine, MPlayer, and VLC derives from the FFmpeg library. FFmpeg is LGPL-licensed, but its license and source code availability does not vacate any user's legal obligations under the domain of patent law.

Non-free media formats are fundamentally at odds with free software, not because of source code licensing but because of patents. Ignoring that fact can mean taking a serious legal risk. As Dave Neary of Wengo so concisely expressed it on his personal blog: "People should realise that proprietary codecs are just that -- proprietary. And if they cost money, that's a great way to realise."

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