Freedom or power?

Someone who apparently works for Novell (a distributor of a GNU/Linux system) named “dobey” asks

I continue to see people blog about how site foo doesn’t use open source software to play videos, or how company bar won’t release some piece of code as open source. And the big argument here is always how it limits the freedom of people, particularly a very small subset of the development world. But does it really limit freedom, more than the alternatives might?

First, the open source movement was started in part to get away from framing anything in terms of a user’s software freedom. The open source movement wants to speak strictly in terms of practicalities particularly for programmers, not ethics or the effect on users, so the free software movement and the open source movement have a different way of looking at the world.

Second, yes, it does. With non-free codecs you are restricted in the same ways any other non-free software restricts you. Practical consequences of not having these freedoms include:

  • You can’t be sure if the software is spying on you, reporting what you’re viewing to someone somewhere because you’re not allowed to inspect the program.
  • You have no permission to change the software or get someone to change it for you if you discover it’s not doing what you want it to do.
  • You can’t give a copy to a friend as friends are wont to do when they find something they like.

Richard Stallman said that Windows Media Player reports what you’re viewing to someplace it connects to. Some system update programs will tell the update site what you have installed and then wait for that site to prepare a list of updates for you instead of asking what updates are available to download and install. This is known as “spyware”.

dobey asks

Is it not freedom to be able to make the choice and say that you won’t use something, because it’s not free?

Yes, one can be said to be free if slavery is not an option.

Proprietors don’t give you freedom, proprietors leverage power over you by licensing their programs in a way that restricts certain freedoms you deserve to have. Even non-programmers can leverage their freedom to share a copy of something with someone or pool money together to buy a programmer’s skill to get a program written for them.

What can you do to play media in free formats?

Install something to work with what you’ve already got:
Microsoft Windows users
MacOS X users
Free software OS users already have the software they need.
Or, install a new player program
All operating systems can run VideoLAN Client.

If you’re making a webpage, investigate distributing a multimedia file with Java and Fluendo’s Cortado software which will let users see the video without installing anything new. I’m going to check this out for use on this blog when I link to Ogg Theora+Vorbis files.