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Canonical explains Ubuntu unfree video choice

License to distribute

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.

Canonical inferred here that PC manufacturers that engage with its OEM services unit have the right to gain coverage for the company's license of H.264.

OEMs work with Canonical to tune Ubuntu to their hardware, for things like fast start-ups or to work with specific graphics drivers.

The H reported that Canonical director of business development Chris Kenyon said it has licenses to redistribute other open- and closed-source software, too. "Like Adobe Flash, Adobe Acrobat, Fluendo, RealPlayer, DVD players and other proprietary software, we have a direct re-distribution agreement for H.264," Kenyon said.

That doesn't mean, though, that all PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed are covered by Canonical's H.264 license. "The vendor may have opted not to include it", Kenyon said, as the PC maker decides what additional software and codecs they want included on the machine.

The H continued that the issue: "is further complicated by some components (like DVD drives) coming with codec and software licences pre-bundled."

Apparently you, the consumer, have no way of telling what codecs are included on the machine, unless the manufacturer has called them out - something that'll miff open sourcers. Canonical has apparently tried to do right by the community, and "explored setting some minimum requirements for codecs, but this is not something that we presently do."

Licensing of codecs is a thorny subject that's as difficult to navigate for those building and implementing systems as it is for open sourcers like Canonical who've had to bite the bullet and swallow a piece of software that goes against their open-source creed.

Kenyon didn't say "why" Canonical licensed H.264. And in a way, he didn't have to.

As I wrote in my original article that revealed Canonical's H.264 license, it's the price of doing business for companies like Canonical that might support open and free alternatives to H.264 such as Ogg Theora, but that also want to serve the mass consumer market. That's a market where billions of devices play video using H.264 because it's seen by media companies as being both ubiquitous - so video plays anywhere - and safe, in terms of technical reliability and patents.

Unfortunately for the industry, it's a handful of technology companies that have built H.264 that are also promoting it as safe and reliable. Those companies include Microsoft and Apple, which are delivering either video players in their software or actual video content through services like iTunes that'll run on those billions of device in the marketplace. ®

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