August 14, 2008

Fluendo walks the line between free and proprietary codecs

Author: Bruce Byfield

Despite all its advances, GNU/Linux remains weak in its support for proprietary audio and video codecs. Because these codecs are often encumbered by patents, distributions must choose either to include support of questionable legality or else exclude it altogether. In the middle of this controversy sits Fluendo, a Catalan company of about 50 employees that is a main contributor to projects like GStreamer, and supports open formats, but also offers licensed, proprietary codecs such as Windows Media Video and MPEG4. While many would argue that this dual position is necessary, it's one that sometimes creates an unasy balance for the company, says Muriel Moscardini, Fluendo's sale director.

Fluendo was founded by Julien Moutte and Pascal Pegaz with the intent of making free software "a real competitor" to proprietary companies offering streaming video, says Moscardini. "That means working solutions for the B2B market and work on all legal constraints a company may have while distributing software" -- in other words, offering video streaming as a service and obtaining the legal right to use popular codecs.

It was not so much that Fluendo set out to offer support for both free and proprietary codecs as the fact that doing so seemed a necessary business move. According to Moscardini, Fluendo's policy has always been "First, we define the products and the business model, and then we develop and release [products] under the appropriate license. So, for the codecs, some of them have to be proprietary (such as H.264 and Windows Media) and others can be open sourced (Theora and Dirac)."

Today, the result is a mixture of products. Flumotion Streaming Service, one of Fluendo's flagship products, has a basic version available under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and an advanced version with proprietary codecs. Other products, such as Cortado, a Java-streaming applet for Ogg Theora, and the Elisa Media Center are released entirely under the GPL, while licensed codecs are available for €7 ($11). In addition, Fluendo offers a non-free MP3 decoder as a free download -- in order, Moscardini says, to "provide a legal way for free software zealots to convert their MP3 content to free formats."

Talking about this mixture of licenses, Moscardini says, "Fluendo has worked hard to be able to convince the patent holders to give the rights to distribute the codecs for an entire operating system legally. It was one of the challenges to be able to make legal multimedia on open source solutions a reality."

Fluendo views this effort as a benefit, but, unsurprisingly, such dealings with proprietary codecs do not go uncriticized in the free and open source software (FOSS) community. "We have regular discussions with the community about our solutions," Moscardini says diplomatically. "Fluendo is a company composed by people involved in the community, and we always go hand in hand with the community. It is normal that we don't always agree all together. The patent situation in the multimedia field is very diffciult to understand, and we have to satisify as many customers as we can, whether they be end users from the community or big corporations." She insists that, "Globally, Fluendo is welcome, and considered as an open source-friendly company."

Certainly, Fluendo employees have close ties with the community. "The majority of the 50 people in our company are developers full involved in the open source community," Moscardini says, listing GStreamer, Elisa, Totem, and Xiph among the projects in which company employees are involved. The company also attends and helps to sponsor FOSS events, such as GUADEC.

"The community has always recognized that Fluendo as very supportive, even if selling non-open source software," Moscardini says.

Another sign of Fluendo's good relationship with the FOSS community is the inclusion of Codec Buddy (a.k.a. Codeina) in the Fedora distribution. Although Fedora does not ship non-free software, Codec Buddy is a way for those who want proprietary codecs to download Fluendo's legal versions of them -- a sort of harm reduction solution to the problem that enables the use of proprietary codecs while minimizing the potential effects. Codeinia is now also available in other distributions, including Mandriva.

Moscardini describes Codeina as a tool "to help Linux users to understand why some plugins are missing in their distribution. And then we wanted to help them download solutions in the simplest way. So Codeina automatically pops up when you try to read a file and don't have a good codec. Then you can choose the solution you want."

Despite such controversies, Moscardini makes clear that Fluendo self-identifies with the FOSS community. "In addition to the philosophy which is present in our daily work as a company, the top management has always believed that there are ways to conduct business based upon free software," she says. "This is the major link between Fluendo and the open source community: we are just part of it, and we want to keep on being part of it. We believe that open source solutions have a great future, and we want to be be one of the players in this future."

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