The Linux world hears relatively little from Eric Raymond these days, a
fact which maybe bothers some people more than others. Be that as it may, Eric recently
broke his silence
, in classic form, on the
Fedora-devel list. It seems that Eric has come to save the Fedora
distribution and set it back onto the path of Total World Domination.
There are a few small details that Eric would like to see fixed, including
the FC5 artwork ("...backgrounds that look like a Teletubby hocked
loogies into a dish full of soap scum."). But the real issue is in
a different area: media support - DVD playback, Java applets, Flash media,
For a consumer OS to be unable to play MP3s and handle podcasts is
just plain not acceptable, not in the world after iTunes.
The problem, of course, is that MP3 is a patented format. Since Fedora is,
by design, a 100%
free distribution, it is unable to include patent-encumbered software. So
no MP3 format in Fedora. Adding MP3 support to an installed Fedora Core
system is not a particularly difficult task for somebody who knows where to
look (or how to ask a search engine), but it does require some extra
steps. Red Hat's lawyers do not even allow Fedora (or its web sites) to
even include a pointer to where this software can be found for fear of
"contributory infringement" charges. As a result, adding MP3 support is
too hard for many desktop users, especially home desktop users.
One option might be to get a distribution license for the GStreamer MP3 plugin. With
such a license, Fedora could ship a fully licensed MP3 decoder, with
BSD-licensed source. There remain issues with just how that plugin could
be shipped with certain GPL-licensed players, but the real problem is
elsewhere: a Fedora distribution with this plugin would no longer be
redistributable by others. It would, in other words, no longer be a 100%
Another option would be to put together some sort of third-party,
repository with a carefully-chosen set of Fedora additions, a few of which
just happen to include MP3 support. Said repository would naturally be
hosted in a carefully-chosen country. Fedora could come with instructions
for configuring the system to use that repository as a source of "useful extra
software," with no mention of what is to be found there. Such a scheme
might be vague enough to make the lawyers relax - though they have not made
their feelings known on the matter.
Yet another approach would be for Eric to make his own, MP3-enabled Fedora
offshoot distribution - call it Fully-Armed Fedora or some such. Eric,
however, has declined that opportunity,
I don't have the money or the lawyers to pull it off. This sort of thing
is why we have commercial partners with office buildings.
What is really being called for here, in other words, is for Red Hat to
stick its neck out and take the legal risk that comes with providing easy
MP3 capability to Fedora users. Red Hat
is understandably reluctant to do that. The company's relatively high
profile and significant cash pile (around $800 million) make it a more
likely lawsuit target than many others. Red Hat management probably sees
much risk and little benefit in inviting lawsuits by including MP3 support,
directly or indirectly.
Eric's claim is that companies like Red Hat need to make a business
decision to solve the MP3 problem in one way or another, even if it means
making deals with patent trolls or shipping proprietary software. A Linux
desktop which cannot deal with MP3 files is simply too crippled to be taken
seriously by a large portion of the potential user base. If Fedora is ever
to succeed in that market, it must do what the target users want it
There is a point here. Using Ogg for one's CD collection is no sacrifice,
especially if one's portable player (running Rockbox, say) also supports that format.
But there is an increasing amount of interesting content on the net which
is only available in the MP3 encoding. All of that content is inaccessible
using a stock Fedora Core system. That is, indeed, an unacceptable
situation for many users.
Solutions must be approached carefully, however. Future systems are likely
to present other problems: DRM-encoded video formats, broadcast flags,
locked-down computers which only run officially-signed software, and more.
Any solution which does not also offer at least some hope of addressing
those issues will not get us very far. So, in other words, to properly
solve the MP3 problem, we must (1) continue working to encourage the
creation of content in free formats, and (2) face the legal issues
which are at the root of these problems. Those goals will not be helped
much by bolting proprietary or otherwise encumbered software onto our free
Meanwhile, some other issues may be amenable to easier solutions. To that
end, Warren Togami has announced the
creation of a new mailing list for the discussion of artwork for future
Fedora Core releases. Fedora Core 6 still won't play MP3 files, but
maybe it can look a little nicer.
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