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Canonical Explains Decision to License H.264 For Ubuntu 372

tux writes with this snippet from The Register: "Ubuntu's commercial sponsor Canonical has tried to clarify how — if not why — it has licensed a closed-source and patented codec for video on PCs running its Linux. Canonical is the first Linux shop to have agreed to license the codec in question, H.264, from MPEG LA. Even though Red Hat and Novell are also available for use on PCs, they have not licensed H.264."
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Canonical Explains Decision to License H.264 For Ubuntu

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  • Good thing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 06, 2010 @04:52PM (#32117150)

    It's a great move for the Linux community, even if some "pure" free and open source people disagree. You cant get everything at once and expect casual people to put up with "it's proprietary so we dont support it" if they want to do something, or demand them to add some Russian repositories in the apt-get config file so they can get unlicensed, pirated versions of those and break the law. No, they will just get something that works for them. And H.264 has already clearly won this round, so anyone catering for casual people has to support it.

    Like TFA notes, Canonical has also previously licensed well done closed source software for Ubuntu. You aren't losing your soul if you take the best from the both worlds. In fact you are still promoting open source software, and probably way more efficiently when people actually like the system and can use it the way they want to. I honestly dont think every software in the world should be open source, but the underlying system should be. But even if you want software and standards to be open too, after getting the open OS out there the next step is to create competitive, better alternatives for the software and standards.

    Be focused on one thing, dont try to fight the whole world at once.


    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by mugurel ( 1424497 )
      heh, and now you get modded up... but anyway, i disagree with you on fighting the whole world at once. This is about settling a standard video format for the web for the time to come. It's not something you do today and undo tomorrow. If you desire open and license free standards this is not the right time to make a compromise!
      • Re:Good thing (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Ethanol-fueled ( 1125189 ) * on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:35PM (#32117658) Homepage Journal

        If you desire open and license free standards this is not the right time to make a compromise!

        Maybe, but stuff like this needs to happen for widespread adoption of Linux, to make it legit in the eyes of the masses. The purists can always use other distros and/or hack together other working solutions. Remember, the beauty of Linux is that you always have a choice.

        As an aside, I'm amused that sopssa has bad karma(excellent FP in this case). If you wanna get constant +5 first posts, you gotta play rough with the big boys, dude.

        • Re:Good thing (Score:4, Insightful)

          by DurendalMac ( 736637 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:43PM (#32117780)
          Mod this guy up. A lot of hardcore FOSS advocates want everything to go open source, but they refuse to see things as they are. Right now, there are closed-source codecs, programs, operating systems, etc out there that have the bulk of many different markets. You want Linux to get more desktop market share? You will NOT be able to do it without biting the bullet and supporting some closed standards. End of story.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by jvillain ( 546827 )

            Any distro that wants to licence h.264 is no longer available for free. They will have to charge for it. I know that is what the propriatary companies want. But more importantly it's h.264 today. What do we give up tomorrow? ODF? Do we start licensing MONO? What standards do we start doing away with? HTML?

            To me Ubuntu has never been a part of the open source world. They have always shown that they are willing to throw the rest of the open source world under the bus if it will get them market share or help t

          • Re:Good thing (Score:5, Insightful)

            by aj50 ( 789101 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @07:49PM (#32119654)

            This isn't about open source, there exist completely open source decoders and encoders for h264.

            This is about patents and the costs and consequences of licensing them.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by dunng808 ( 448849 )

              True, but in practice many FOSS folk use "open source" to include "patent and royalty free." And, just to be clear, an open source program can, according to a few well placed people, infringe upon patents.

      • Re:Good thing (Score:4, Insightful)

        by fbjon ( 692006 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:39PM (#32117730) Homepage Journal
        It's never the right time to compromise, but you have to do it anyway.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jedidiah ( 1196 )

        ...except there is enough variation in h264 that this still doesn't constitute a standard.

        "Standardizing" on h264 just gets you in the general neighborhood. It still doesn't gaurantee that your video will play on any device.

        Although if you do manage to find that "lowest common denominator", you will likely find it unsuitable for more robust clients.

        This isn't quite like settling on mp3 or jpg.

    • I respectfully disagree. The entire point of open source is to foster and encourage it as well as produce it. Canonical would have been better off trying to throw its weight behind Google and VP8. It is not a question of winners and losers. Remember when Linux was the real underdog? Linux proves that an open source battle can be fought and one .... Linus and the FSF proved that community developed, open source applications can compete neck and neck with their proprietary counterparts and, in some case
    • Re:Good thing (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Concern ( 819622 ) * on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:48PM (#32117866) Journal

      Nice pre-written bit of astroturf.

      The only thing that's "clear" is that h.264 has hardly won anything yet. The round has not yet begun. Google controls youtube, and if they like VP8, and it happens to be free, look out world.

      Just because Shuttleworth is buying some licenses for its OEM hardware partners does not mean you get proprietary codecs for free with your ubuntu download, unless you steal them. But this is like stealing a plastic bag. Why steal what someone else will give you for free?

    • Re:Good thing (Score:5, Informative)

      by init100 ( 915886 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:52PM (#32117922)

      or demand them to add some Russian repositories in the apt-get config file so they can get unlicensed, pirated versions of those and break the law.

      Unless the term piracy now also includes patent infringement those codecs aren't pirated. They are simply illegal to distribute in the United States because the US allows software patents, and the software is covered by such US patents. The codecs in questions are perfectly legal in any country where software is not patentable.

    • Re:Good thing (Score:4, Insightful)

      by timbo234 ( 833667 ) on Friday May 07, 2010 @04:55AM (#32123748) Journal

      or demand them to add some Russian repositories in the apt-get config file so they can get unlicensed, pirated versions of those and break the law.

      I mostly agree with the rest of your post but this part is just FUD. Firstly, the x264 project is not pirated software, it's an open source implementation of H264. Secondly, and most important, software patents are only really valid in one country with particularly skewed laws, the USA. Even there you'd need to spend minimum US$1 million on a patent lawsuit to see if the patent is even valid, let alone whether it applies to someone using it privately on a home computer.

      I don't know about Ubuntu but for Opensuse the patented media codecs are hosted by the Packman project, a perfectly legitimate packaging project based in Germany that provides around 5000 extra packages that aren't in the main Opensuse repo.

  • WHY? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blackraven14250 ( 902843 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @04:54PM (#32117170)
    Since the general goal of Ubuntu is to reach out to the average computer user, rather than the power user or enterprise as most other distributions aim for, the question of "Why did they license a codec that most major companies are throwing support behind?" shouldn't really need to be asked.
    • HOW? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:03PM (#32117304)

      Since TFS is so suckily misleading, I actually RTFA this time. Everybody's been saying it's legally impossible for Mozilla to license H.264 for Firefox, because MPEG LA requires a limit on the number of installs or something. Of course since Ubuntu is freely distributable, all the same arguments would apply. So WTF?

      But it turns out this doesn't mean licensing the codec for the installs we end users make from the ISOs we've downloaded and burned or anything. It's about offering OEMs the option of licensing it for preinstalled copies of Ubuntu.

      • by olden ( 772043 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:21PM (#32117512)

        Please mod parent up; so far this seems the only informed comment on this thread (sigh).
        Link to TFA: []

      • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

        by node 3 ( 115640 )

        Since TFS is so suckily misleading, I actually RTFA this time. Everybody's been saying it's legally impossible for Mozilla to license H.264 for Firefox, because MPEG LA requires a limit on the number of installs or something. Of course since Ubuntu is freely distributable, all the same arguments would apply. So WTF?

        To answer your "WTF?", the problem is that everybody's been lying about Firefox. There are absolutely no legal reasons why they can't license H.264, just as there are no legal reasons Canonical can't. Which is why they were able to do it. WTF averted, problem solved.

      • by rawler ( 1005089 )

        Last time I read the License, MPEG LA has a few steps in the License, where below a certain number of installs it's free, in between it's increasingly pricey, and there's a ceiling of the total amount of licenses in an organisation, where new licenses don't cost more.

        Of course though, you're completely right in your OEM assesment. This does in no way improve the situation for the vast majority of Canonicals users (who doesn't get Ubuntu through OEM), it's simply a move for Canonical to improve it's profitab

  • heh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Pojut ( 1027544 )

    Wine all you want, open-source fanatics. Our HTPCs are getting quite a nice boost in usability.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 06, 2010 @04:55PM (#32117198)

    The writing's on the wall here, kids. H.264 is where web video is going.

    Theora's a non-starter, and unless VP8 is stunning as fuck and Google indemnifies everyone and his kid brother against lawsuits, it's not going anywhere either.

    • by calmofthestorm ( 1344385 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @04:59PM (#32117248)

      It'd be easier to fight h264 if it weren't so damn good.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Big Boss ( 7354 )

        Not the mentioned hardware accelerated on EVERYTHING. My cell phone has hardware acceleration for h264. OGG? no. VP8? no. Can the CPU do it? no. Well, h264 it is then. It's fine to say we should push for open codecs, but when I can't play the videos encoded with them on my equipment...... Google and VP8 are probably our best chance here, if Google can push for hardware supported VP8 in Android equipment, they might be able to stem the tide. If they care. They already have h264 licenses.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rawler ( 1005089 )

        Since when had technological advantages had anything to do with business decisions?

        Both Apple and Microsoft, two of the more influential forces in the decision, are stakeholders in MPEG LA []. Add the fact that they both probably feels slightly anxious over the seemingly immortal Open Source guys, that just refuses to keel over, but invades market after market. Considered they had the chance to throw a monkey-wrench right into their common enemy, Open Source Software, and I think the decision was made complete

      • It'd be easier to fight h264 if anything nearly as good wasn't likely covered by patents.
        Flash, Google, VP8, and the future of internet video []
  • Lawyers win-win (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Elektroschock ( 659467 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:00PM (#32117258)

    It would be more sustainable and cheaper to invest in patent reform than to license trivial patents of course...

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      I'm sorry, why shouldn't we reward people who come up with a novel compression algorithm?

      In any event, they only get it for the next 18 years. And in all likelihood, someone will come up with a better algorithm in the mean time.

      I've never really understood the anti-intellectual property sentiment on Slashdot..
      • Re:Lawyers win-win (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ClosedSource ( 238333 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @09:02PM (#32120508)

        A lot of people around here talk about "free as in freedom" but what they really care about is the "free as in beer" that usually results. A lot more Slashdotters consume music illegally than they do create and distribute derivative works of FOSS.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by jmcvetta ( 153563 )

          consume music illegally

          Gosh that's a wonderful statement. So much better than all the 'property' sophism and 'compensation' demands that one usually sees. It captures, with uncommonly bare honesty, everything that's wrong with anti-sharing ideology.

          "Sir, it is illegal for you to listen to that song!"

  • by armanox ( 826486 ) <> on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:00PM (#32117260) Homepage Journal
    Reading the article and linked articles points out that this only applies purchased copies of Ubuntu and not the downloaded version that everyone seems to adore.
    • by jedidiah ( 1196 )

      ...and where does one purchase copies of Ubuntu exactly?

      They don't sell such a thing. They sell support contracts but they don't sell a boxed version like Redhat used to.

      You can get cheap install CD's but that's something else.

      • by armanox ( 826486 )
        I should have been more specific. It seems to apply to PC's purchased with Ubuntu preinstalled on them.
  • by Concern ( 819622 ) * on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:02PM (#32117298) Journal

    He's willing to compromise on doctrinaire software freedom issues in order to grow his marketshare. I'm impressed he can afford to buy it and give it away even to their OEM vendors. One wonders what terms this was made on, and how sustainable it is. But to be clear - this does not come free with each download of Ubuntu. It's part of a deal where money is getting made through the sale of hardware.

    You can look to Android for similar policy, I'm sure.

    It might also have the effect of embarrassing some of the folks who had aspirations of hurting Linux adoption by trying to lock the world into a proprietary video codec. It will hurt, but the effect will not be as black and white as it was in the past.

    The real endgame here is still getting an open codec in an open standard for web video. I think the commercial interests have finally woken up to how much the proprietary codec world has hurt them, and how much they have to gain by escaping. It's not just a problem for Linux and the FSF - proprietary codecs are a big problem for everyone who produces and consumes video.

    In a perfect world, where users could unbundle and pay ala carte for commercial vs. free codecs, they would not buy them (they're not worth much vs. what we can do for free), and producers would not be saddled with encoding for them, and everyone would be quite a lot happier.

    • "I'm impressed he can afford to buy it and give it away even to their OEM vendors."

      I dunno. Apple gives away tons of free H.264 licenses with their software (QuickTime, iTunes) on Windows. H.264 licenses aren't that expensive, even though I'm pretty sure they are per machine/download. (The max license fee for the encoder is two cents a disk.)

  • Focus (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Enderandrew ( 866215 ) <.enderandrew. .at.> on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:10PM (#32117392) Homepage Journal

    Canonical can focus on keeping the FSF happy, or they can focus on trying to someday turn a profit and brining sustainability to their company.

    Why do they need to justify this decision? It seems like a no-brainer to me.

  • Closed source? No. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nielsm ( 1616577 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:29PM (#32117594) Homepage


    H.264 is not "closed source", it's an open standard with open source encoders (famous x264, everything points to it being the best quality encoder available anywhere) and decoders (libavcodec), it's just that a bazillion companies have patents that cover every corner of video coding. It might be "unfree", but it's certainly not "closed source" or "closed standard" or "proprietary".

    • by rawler ( 1005089 )

      It's certainly "closed standard", and "proprietary", since parts of it (the patents covering implementation) is property of it's creators.

      But yeah, I also reacted to "closed source". I actually thought higher of The Register.

    • by unix1 ( 1667411 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @07:10PM (#32119132)

      it's an open standard with open source encoders

      I don't know what definition of "open source" you are using or what you think it means in your mind, but that's not a generally accepted definition.

      I'm not going to cite hardline FSF views. Instead have a look at generally considered "pragmatic" OSI []:

      Open source doesn't just mean access to the source code. The distribution terms of open-source software must comply with the following criteria:
      1. Free Redistribution

      The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

      So, yes - open source does mean you need to be able to freely redistribute the source, otherwise what's the point?

      If you go down that road, you'd be able to convince yourself that MS Windows is "open source" too since MS has given the Windows source code to some governments and biggest customers. They just can't redistribute it or make it public.

    • You liars are annoying. H.264 is still a closed standard and it does not matter how many Microsoft Partners tell you that closed is open or that open means "buy our stuff". H.264 fails on points 2, 3, and 4 of the formal definition of open standard:

      1. The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organization, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).
      2. The standard has b
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by drinkypoo ( 153816 )

      H.264 is not "closed source",

      Irrelevant. It would be a straw man if people didn't keep saying that H.264 was undesirable because it's closed source. It's not; there's no source, it's a standard. It is not, however, an open standard because you must pay to receive the full standards (it costs money just to download a competent summary of the standard, in fact) and it must be licensed to be used, and that is the antithesis of an open standard.

  • by kidjan ( 844535 )
    First of all, H264 is not a "closed-source..codec"--this is complete nonsense. The standard itself is completely published and documented, and there is nothing stopping open source projects from creating H264 encoder and decoders. And have they ever--hands down, the best H264 encoder implementation today is x264, which is licensed under the GPL. The patent issue is totally separate, but let's not conflate "patented" with "open source." The real issue with H264 is who will pay royalties for the patents.
  • The pragmatist (Score:5, Insightful)

    by westlake ( 615356 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @05:47PM (#32117844)

    H.264 licensors include fifteen of the biggest names in global manufacturing and tech.

    Mitsubishi. NTT. Philips. Samsung. Toshiba....

    The 817 licensees include hundreds of other names the geek should recognize.

    H.264 support is in the cell phones they make.

    Web cams. Camcorders. Video game consoles. Mobile Internet devices and PCs of every description. Industrial and security video. Broadcast, cable and satellite technologies.

    Theatrical production and home video. The set-top box. The Internet enabled HDTV.

    Mozilla's Firefox can ignore H.264 in the browser.

    But Mozilla can't keep from stocking 3,500 flavors of the H.264 HD camcorder, priced from $125-$5,000.

    It can't get shelf space for the non-existent Theora or VP8 product in WalMart.

    There are some things a commercially viable OEM Linux PC must deliver at retail. H.264 support is one of them. It needs to be in hardware. it needs to competitive - and it needs to be there today.

  • H.264 is the online successor to the DVD. It's quality and universality is worth paying for. This is great news for Ubuntu.

  • ...and found nothing superior about H.264 over Theora.

    This "H.264 is superior" is a myth, astroturfing at it best.

    I have no doubt the main drive for H.264 is political, specially since they are insisting on codec exclusivity. Codec always used to be pluggable but now Apple and Microsoft have decided that they are only going to allow their codec. How am I not to guess this is yet another underhanded stab at open source?

  • H.264 in jail (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @09:19PM (#32120678) Homepage

    If the H.264 code binary can be run in user space, non-root, in a chroot jail, then my issues with it are just philosophical and not enough to prevent me from running it. I prefer open source. But I'm not opposed to running binary code. I'm also not opposed to paying for it.

    What I am opposed to is borging my computer by running un-inspectable code as a kernel module, root process, or even an unjailed user process. I do not trust corporations to do things right. I'm not going to give permissions to untrusted code. And if I can't read the source, it's untrusted ... by definition.

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp