Free Alternatives to Everyday Software


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This video explains how the typical approach to releasing commercial media is often at odds with the open source approach. It also shows how, despite the conflict, media can be consumed in a completely open source manner.


  • Video
  • music
  • streaming
  • VLC
  • Mplayer
  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray
  • DRM
  • EME

About this video

Karl Beecher
First online
04 December 2019
Online ISBN
Copyright information
© Karl Beecher 2019

Video Transcript

Karl Beecher: This segment, we’ll examine support for multimedia in the open source world. In particular, things like videos and music. Multimedia hasn’t in the past been one of the trickier areas of open source software, but recent advances have improved matter somewhat. As a result, the difficulties you will encounter depend largely on how you consume your content.

A lot of popular media is produced by commercial enterprises who want to make sure consumers access to content legally. The usual question is, have you paid for it? If you have, then you’re allowed to see it. The standard approach is for the content to be released in encrypted form. When it’s established that you’re allowed to access it, the content is decrypted. So at some point in the process of accessing that media, that question has to be answered. With the more traditional means of distribution like movies and music on disk, open source users can potentially have a tricky time.

Let’s examine why by studying DVD as a case study. A DVD is typically protected by a content scrambling system. This is a form of Digital Rights Management, DRM. When a media company sells a DVD, they’re selling a piece of encrypted media. In order to read the disc, you have to buy a license from the ruling association and sign a nondisclosure agreement. This gives you access to the decryption and algorithms that unlock DVDs. Of course, the vast majority of consumers are no position to do that. Instead, manufacturers have DVD players by the license and sell you a compliant DVD player containing those algorithms.

And therein lies the problem if you want to produce a fully compliant open source DVD player. The DVD content scrambling system depends on secret and patented software and is intended for the likes of commercial enterprises. Whereas open source software is based on openness and limited this copying of code. Even if you could afford to purchase the decryption software, some parts of the process run counter to open source principles like keeping parts of the players code secret and paying license fees for each copy sold. The practically impossible proposal given how open source software allows people to freely duplicate the program.

Around the turn of the century, the DVD protection system was broken. A group of programmers reverse engineered the algorithm and made it possible for the open source community to write their own DVD player programs without having to apply for a license. For example, Libdvdcss is an open source software player that can descramble a DVD and is used by many open source media players like VLC, Ogle or MPlayer to enable DVD playback.

Now morally, you might have no qualms about a person taking it upon themselves to write a program that plays DVDs they have purchased legally. Nevertheless, it is a legally questionable approach in certain jurisdictions. As a result, many Linux distributions treat things like live Libdvdcss as a special case, making them available, but forcing users to install them separately after giving you a legal heads up. As we had, there has been little in the way of successful legal action against open source DVD players, but it can still be a good idea to check the legality in your own jurisdiction.

A similar but more powerful DRM system also protects Blu-ray discs. Of course, today’s young hip consumer doesn’t buy disks and they stream everything online. It’s new emerging model of consuming media brings mixed news for the open source world. The good news is that distribution can be and often is done via the web and as we covered in an earlier segment, the web is an open platform built largely on open standards and open source is a powerful force in web browsers today.

However, content producers distributing via the web still want to ensure that the consumer has proper access to content. For this, they did not consider an ordinary browser as trustworthy means. They’ve since pushed for and succeeded in getting an extension to web standards that builds DRM into the web. There’s extensions called EME enabled in social or proprietary pieces of code and otherwise open source ecosystem. This is a contentious issue in the open source community and you should check up on the support for the kinds of multimedia you want to view. For example, Mozilla recently considered to allow EME into its Firefox browser. This allows you to say, watch Netflix movies on Firefox, but at the cost of introducing non-free software into the process.

In the final section, we’ll look at operating systems.