Ubuntu One Music
One of the features expected with the upcoming Ubuntu 10.04 release is the
(UOMS). The UOMS is a mechanism by which Ubuntu users can purchase
songs in the MP3 format, with some of the revenue going to support Canonical.
These songs are evidently compressed at a
relatively high bit rate and lack any sort of DRM or watermarks.
Support for the UOMS has been integrated into the Rhythmbox
music player, with support for other players expected in the future. Discussion of
this new feature has been relatively subdued thus far, but developers
elsewhere are beginning to take notice and ask some questions about the
extent to which the UOMS should be supported.
Recently, Amarok hacker Jeff Mitchell went
to the openSUSE community to ask them how they felt about the UOMS. In
particular, he would like to know how openSUSE might react if Canonical
were to push its Rhythmbox changes back upstream - which has not yet
happened, as of this writing. Would openSUSE be willing to ship a
Rhythmbox plugin which existed for the purpose of funding another
distributor? How, asked Jeff, do we feel about free software which is
designed to make money for others?
To an extent, this question has been answered for years: both Rhythmbox and
Amarok include support for Magnatune's music store, and distributors have
shipped that support. This plugin generates
income - a significant amount, evidently - for Magnatune, which kicks
a portion back to Rhythmbox and Amarok. So simply operating a
for-profit music store is not, itself, reason for concern or for exclusion
from free music player applications. The Ubuntu music store appears to be
looked at differently, though, for a couple of reasons, one of which may
hold more water than the other.
Jeff described the rules which music stores
like Magnatune must meet for inclusion in Amarok:
So far our policy for music stores has been pretty strict: they
must allow full-length previews, they must allow tracks that have
been purchased to be redownloaded at any time, and they must allow
tracks to be purchased in a free format (which could be in addition
to a non-free format).
It is not clear what sort of preview capability will be included in the
UOMS. It would appear, from Ubuntu's documentation, that tracks can be
downloaded up to three times, so redownloads are indeed possible "at any
time," but up to a limit. Where things will really fall down, though, is
the requirement for free formats; the Ubuntu store looks to be MP3-only
(the occasional track in Windows media format is unlikely to make
anybody feel any better). So the simple act of playing tracks from the UOMS
on an Ubuntu system will require the installation of codecs which have
potential patent problems or which are not free software.
That requirement is not,
needless to say, encouraging the wider use of free audio formats.
Perhaps this is a place where Canonical could have tried to push things in
the right direction by insisting on the right to sell tracks in free (and
preferably lossless) formats. Perhaps Canonical did try and failed;
if so, that's not something which has been communicated to the rest of the
The other complaint, again as expressed by Jeff, is this:
Canonical however is a for-profit company. Other distributions
shipping this plugin means that you're helping Canonical make their
money for them, and I haven't heard of any method of Canonical
sharing profit with other distributions.
In other words, does it make sense for one distribution to ship code which
exists for the purpose of earning money for somebody else?
Again, the precedent is fairly clear: the Firefox browser has been an
reliable money-making tool for the Mozilla project, and Mozilla Corporation
is a for-profit entity (though the Mozilla Foundation is not). Many drivers
contributed to the kernel are put there by for-profit corporations which
clearly hope to see that code spur sales of their products. Gstreamer
has an array of commercial offerings designed to plug into it. And so on.
software may be free-as-in-beer, but the profit motive is often not that
It is tempting to say that the real complaint here is that, if this support
were to be shipped outside of Ubuntu, the beneficiary would be Canonical in
The truth of the matter, though, is that a music store designed to benefit
any other distribution-owning corporation would likely raise eyebrows as
well. But it is not clear that this is right; there is nothing inherently
wrong with generating money for companies which are making free software.
Free software licenses are not allowed to discriminate between different
fields of use. Freedom means that users can use the code to do something
its developers might find unpleasant - or worse. That does not mean,
though, that distributors have to ship software aimed at any purpose. In
the past, programs like hot
babe and gnaughty
have run into opposition at distributors. So, if distributors were to
decide that selling MP3 files to users violates their standards of decency,
there would be precedents for keeping the code out.
On the other hand, explicitly patching out a music player plugin to prevent
users from spending money with another distributor might be seen as petty,
So far, the situation is hypothetical; Canonical has not yet tried to push
this code upstream, and nobody is expecting other distributors to fish this
patch out of the Ubuntu source packages. It would not be surprising if
this kind if situation were to arise at some point, though; indeed, it
would be surprising if it doesn't. So it makes sense to have this
discussion now; that way, the people involved may have some idea of what
they want to do when a real decision must be made.
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