August 24, 2007

LightScribe disc labelers for GNU/Linux

Author: Bruce Byfield

LightScribe technology, which allows users to etch labels directly onto CDs and DVDs, finally arrived on GNU/Linux in late 2006. LaCie LightScribe Labeler for Linux (4L) was released in October 2006, with Hewlett-Packard's LightScribe business unit releasing its own Simple Labeler a month later. Both are free downloads with proprietary licenses, but they are currently the only tools available for using LightScribe on GNU/Linux. Both offer basic labeling, but each is limited in its own way.

Invented several years ago, LightScribe requires both a special drive and special discs to work. In my area, LightScribe-capable drives are about 70% more expensive than ordinary ones, although that can vary depending on the region. More consistently, LightScribe-capable CDs and DVDs average about 30-40% higher in price than regular discs. Locally, at least, HP and LaCie drives seem most widely available, while Verbatim LightScribe CDs and DVDs can be found on the top shelves of most chain stores, half-hidden by their regular counterparts.

LightScribe media have one side treated with a reactive coating. When this side of the disc is placed faced down in a LightScribe-capable drive, infrared laser light from the drive can etch the disc. Finished LightScribe labels were originally printed in shades of black only, which give them a somewhat eerie appearance against the gold of the coated side of the media. Since December, red, orange, yellow, blue, and green have also been available, but these are not yet regularly stocked items in many computer stores, if my local experience is typical.

Since many people have yet to see LightScribe technology in action, many have misconceptions about it. One is that the new colors are not supported under GNU/Linux. According to Kent Henscheid, marketing manager for LightScribe, that rumor is completely false. Henscheid also counters the claim that in the LightScribe article on Wikipedia that the finished label will only last nine months without fading. He suggests that 20 years is a more accurate figure, although some fading is likely, and that the figure of nine months refers to the suggested shelf-life of unused LightScribe discs.

Installing LightScribe labelers

LaCie's 4L and LightScribe's Simple Labeler both require a recent 2.6 kernel (LaCie specifies 2.6.17 or later), and depend on LightScribe System Software (or Host Software, as LaCie calls it). This system software must be installed before either labeler in order to avoid dependency problems. If you are evaluating both labelers together, be aware, too, that both versions of the host LightScribe system software cannot be installed at once. However, both labelers work with either verson of the system software. You should also know that the version on the LaCie site is older than the one on LightScribe's site, which is updated monthly, according to David Pettigrew, LightScribe software architect.

Both labelers are currently available as RPM packages. LightScribe's packages have been test on SUSE 9.x and 10, while LaCie's have been tested on Mandriva 2006, Fedora Core 5, SUSE 10, and Ubuntu. Both also work on Fedora 7. In addition, LightScribe's pre-release repository includes the labeler and LightScribe System software in DEB format for Debian and Ubuntu.

LightScribe's GNU/Linux Labeler offers only basic functionality compared to the equivalent Windows offerings, which includes a control panel for setting the contrast for burns and for viewing system information. However, a contrast tool for GNU/Linux is in the pre-release repository. In addition, although LightScribe has a Software Development Kit (SDK) for Linux, for Windows it offers a diagnostic and uninstall utility and a 15-day trial version of Surething Labeler. LightScribe also includes a Label Gallery in JPEG format, although this collection does not seem to be designed for the Simple Labeler on any platform, and cannot be added with it.

By contrast, LaCie's 4L is functionally equivalent to its counterparts on Windows and Mac OS X. It also includes a PDF manual for the software.

If, as I did, you have trouble with either piece of software recognizing your LightScribe-capable drive, try adding the following lines to the end of the configuration file /etc/lightscribe.rc:

DriveEnumeration=false;
CDROMDevicePath=drivepath;

Using LightScribe software

LightScribe's Simple Labeler is well-named. It prints circular labels, with text at the top and the bottom of the disc, and optional borders between. Other than the text, your only options with Simple Labeler is the font (but not the size) and which of half a dozen borders to use. Its main advantage is a relatively speedy burning time of 2-4 minutes. The only trouble you are likely to have with Simple Labeler is finding its executable, which is installed to a subdirectory of the /opt folder.

LaCie's 4L offers more options. Its GUI version, started by the command 4L-gui (and, unlike Simple Labeller, placed in /usr/bin, where it is accessible), allows you to import images in BMP, PNG, JPEG, and GIF formats. The 4L window includes controls for positioning an image on the disc template, as well as creating blank spaces in the image for you to hand-letter the title or contents. Instead of using those options, you may choose to use a program such as OpenOffice.org or the GIMP to create an image using a disc template that includes the title and contents, so that the result looks more professional -- which is, after all, the whole point of LightScribe. If the label is full size, you can expect the burn to take 20-30 minutes, depending on the speed of your Lightscribe-capable drive.

LaCie's package also includes 4L-cli, the command-line version of the labeler. Although 4L-cli is limited to using BMP images, it otherwise includes the full functionality of the GUI version, along with administrative options, such as 4L-cli enumerate, which lists the LightScribe drives on the system, 4L-cli open drivepath, which opens the designated drive, and 4L-cli update, which updates the software.

Looking ahead

Although LightScribe released the Simple Labeler "as an example of what we can do," Henscheid says that improving the application is not an immediate priorty. He explains that LightScribe is as much tasked with making the technology an industry standard as with becoming profitable, and that it would rather work with licensees of the technology than against them. By contrast, a LaCie representative says that the company is considering improvements to 4L, such as the ability to add labels directly from the software.

LightScribe is a sexy if non-essential technology, but whether its use will continue to spread is uncertain -- especially under GNU/Linux. "I would really like to see some Linux developers pick up and use our SDK and start creating some labeling apps," Pettigrew says, but, for many, the difficulty may be the proprietary licensing.

Although LightScribe is treating Linux differently from Windows and OS X by making the SDK freely available, the core technology is still closed source and only accessible, in Pettigrew's words, as "a black box." Pettigrew says the reason for this approach is that LightScribe includes "imaging algorithms that HP has developed over the years as intellectual property in its primary business," whose code HP is reluctant to release. "For some people that may be an issue," he acknowledges. "But there are a fair number of users and programmers that have LightScribe technology in their drives, and we're talking to those who want to use it."

The same restraints prevent third-party vendors such as LaCie, who license their use of the technology from LightScribe, from releasing the code for their GNU/Linux products.

Under these circumstances, any LightScribe software developed for GNU/Linux will be in the gray area of having a free license in itself, but being dependent on proprietary technology. The most likely scenario is that, when these labelers emerge, they join the ranks of programs like Acrobat Reader and RealPlayer that many users install, but which are not included in the more politically minded distributions.

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  • Tools & Utilities
  • Desktop Software