Freedom falls with celebration.

For those of you who don’t know:

  • MP3 is patent-encumbered. The algorithms used to make or play MP3s are patented and (in some countries, like the US) must be licensed before they can be used legally (glossing over some details here in the interest of brevity). The license structure is incompatible with free software.
  • Fluendo, a multimedia organization that has made free software multimedia programs for free software systems, recently purchased an MP3 license and distributes MP3 player (decoder) software.
  • There is a way of doing the same job MP3 does without the patent hassle, and which (according to all the blind tests I have read over the past few years) sounds at least as good as MP3 at comparable compression levels (but quite likely better than MP3 in higher quality settings), and has better tagging facilities than MP3. This codec is called Ogg Vorbis.
  • The fight to popularize Ogg Vorbis is right in line with the fight to popularize free software because Ogg Vorbis is an unencumbered codec.

Listen to (which is actually a Speex file, Speex being like Ogg Vorbis but aimed at compressing human speech very tightly) around 56 minutes 10 seconds into the recording to hear RMS‘ response to Fluendo’s recent purchase of an MP3 license. RMS mentioned this during the explanation of the “Liberty or Death” article in the first draft of GPLv3, the introduction of the most popular free software license the GNU General Public License version 3. You can download a better sounding copy of the same audio with a video track from the official Bittorrent or a direct download.

The need for this provision was underlined by a recent article talking about a GStreamer plugin which includes source code distributed under an X11 license, or so it says. But then when you read further you see, in fact, that that’s not the whole of the license; there’s a patent license involved also, and that, in fact, it’s not free software at all! And this was presented as a way of making things better for our community. So you believe that a non-free program can make things better for people, that it’s a step forward, as the author of the article I read did, then you might think what they did was great. But if your goal is to make sure—is to defend user’s freedom, to establish a community of freedom, to spread the idea that freedom is important, than you cannot accept the idea that such a thing is a positive step. It’s a surrender, not an amelioration. And so the “Liberty or Death” article of the GPL is just as important as it ever was.

Putting this in my own words: Now that I think about this more along the lines of who is affected by it and what this patent license purchase allows me to do, I see that Fluendo’s purchase of an MP3 license and their MP3 player software is not really a gift at all, it’s just another non-free codec to tempt us away from freedom.

Measured from the perspective of who is affected by Fluendo’s purchase of an MP3 patent license: the codec changes nothing for most everyone on the planet. For those who don’t live in software patent-encumbered countries, this is yet another free software MP3 encoder, something this audience has had access to for years now. For those who live in software patent-encumbered countries, the MIT X11 license is a ruse because that license does absolutely nothing to protect licensees from the adverse effects of software patents. The Fluendo MP3 software is non-free.

Measured from the perspective of what this lets me do: lose interest in fighting for a free codec that is also a better quality codec. Using non-free software would not be a win for freedom, that’s a win for those who want more people to give into non-free media.

Hubert Figuiere thanks Fluendo for the “gift”. But who is really getting something that they didn’t have before? Lots of people have non-free MP3 players including anyone who is comfortable violating patent law.

Another threat to freedom comes from the Mozilla Foundation in the form of a recommendation to run non-free software. Recently, the Mozilla Foundation is now recommending that MacOS 9 users switch from using Mozilla Suite 1.2.1 for MacOS 9 (the last build to run on that OS) to a proprietary web browser. And at least one Mozilla Foundation employee supports the recommendation. A portion of what RMS said—”So you believe that a non-free program can make things better for people […] It’s a surrender, not an amelioration.”—is applicable to this situation too, although he wasn’t speaking with regard to this situation.

Update: Fedora Core GNU/Linux will include Mono, an implementation of a portion of .net. For a long time, Redhat has not included Mono or any Mono apps. Redhat has not released any substantive report as to their apparent change of mind. Ubuntu GNU/Linux and Novell’s GNU/Linux distribution has included Mono and Mono-dependant apps for some time now. Is this a huge mistake, essentially a way for users to become liable for patent infringement lawsuits? The decision gets little substantive analysis from the supporters; just glowing words of support.

Update: Novell is trying the same strategy as Fluendo and undoubtedly there will be Novell promoters coming along shortly to tell us what a “gift” this new non-free MP3 player program “Banshee” is.