Their Own Worst Enemy

Sometimes (actually, it’s really quite often) Free Software enthusiasts are their own worst enemy. Their insistence on using completely free formats for audio and video instead of the proprietary formats that most people use means that their message is often only seen by a tiny minority of people – generally the people who don’t need to see their message anyway as they are already converts.

Here’s an excellent case in point. The GNU project is twenty-five years old this month. And to celebrate the anniversary, Stephen Fry has recorded a video for them introducing the concepts of free software[1] and talking about the project. This would be a fabulous marketing tool for them, But the only people who will be able to watch it are already Free Software users.

If you had a video to share with as many people as possible, the way that most people would do it would be to upload it to YouTube, Google Video or some other video sharing site. The GNU project won’t do that as all of those sites use Flash video which is a proprietary format and the GNU project are sworn to spurn proprietary formats at all times. This religious adherance to their holy writ also prevents them from using the second best approach which would be to make Quicktime or MPG files available on their web site. Again, these are proprietary formats and therefore verboten.

The approach that the GNU project takes is to make the video available as an Ogg Theora file. Now Ogg Theora is a perfectly good format. Videos in that format are reasonably sized and of pretty good quality. Also, and this is what the GNU project love about it, the format is completely free and open. For that reason, it’s the format that the GNU project use for all of their videos.

There’s only one problem with the Ogg Theora format – almost no-one can view it. On most standard installations of Windows and Mac OSX, there is no software that can play an Ogg Theora file. Which, to my mind, rather defeats the object of having such a useful marketing tool. The GNU project are using this as a way to encourage people to install and use their new gNewSense software package, but I can’t honestly see anyone installing all of that just to watch a Stephen Fry video.

“Ah”, I hear you saying, “but that’s not really a problem, is it? Some clever geek will convert the Ogg Theora file and upload it to YouTube by the end of the day. We’ll all watch it there.” And you’re probably right. There’s a very good chance of that happening. But if it does, the GNU project will probably issue a takedown notice. You see they’ve released this video under a Creative
Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works
licence in order to specifically prevent people from converting the video to a more friendly format. It’s like they want to prevent people from seeing the video.

[Update: As pointed out by Matt (the producer of the video) in the comments, I was completely wrong about the licence. The No Derivative Works clause does not exclude conversion to other formats. There are many versions available on YouTube.]

Of course, this isn’t a problem, for me. I use Linux on my desktop and that’s the only major desktop platform which supports Ogg Theora out of the box. Or so I thought. My first attempt to play the video on my standard installation of Fedora 9 failed. I just saw a grey box and a Java applet error. I fiddled with the options a bit and tried again using the Totem video player. Ironically, that popped up a dialog message warning me that it needed a proprietary plugin to play the video and then telling me that no appropriate plugin was available. Ignoring the error, the video played fine anyway. I’m not sure what the problem is.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the BBC will play the video and lots of people will see that way. But getting Stephen Fry to record a video about your project is an incredibly powerful publicity tool. It is stupid to hang on to your religious beliefs to such an extent that you prevent most people from seeing it.

[1] The Free Software Foundation never ever use the term “Open Source Software” as it dilutes their brand.

Update: On investigating gNewSense further, I see that it’s a completely new Linux distribution, because popular distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora are happy to include proprietary software. I despair.

Update 2: In the comments, Paul points out that they are using a Java applet to play the video, which will mean that it works fine everywhere where Java is successfully installed (not, it appears, on my machine). But it’s 2008. No-one uses Java applets any more. And anyway (as Paul also points out) Java was proprietary (and therefore verboten) until very recently. What did they do before that?


  1. Actually, it played fine on my Mac. Mind you, that’s because it used a Java applet to play the Theora file. (Um, wait. Isn’t Java also proprietary? And, until recently, not included with Linux distributions? Maybe it’s now free enough.)

    I don’t really think this detracts from your point, mind.

  2. Dave,

    The Java Applet is actually what Wikipedia uses for all of its audio/video content. I have confidence in Wikipedia’s ability to serve up lots of different videos and audio files to the public, so it was a pretty safe bet.

    As for the FSF putting the video under that license to prevent people from putting the video out under different formats, well, it’s a shame you didn’t actually read the license before jumping to that conclusion.

    “The above rights may be exercised in all media and formats whether now known or hereafter devised. The above rights include the right to make such modifications as are technically necessary to exercise the rights in other media and formats, but otherwise you have no rights to make Derivative Works.” So, the license explicitly allows you to do just that.

    gNewSense isn’t really a new distribution, it’s just Ubuntu with proprietary bits taken out and its own artwork.

    I hope this clears things up, and I hope you enjoyed the video.


    Matt LeeWriter/Producer of “Happy Birthday to GNU”

  3. What a bunch of FUD.

    Installing Theora codecs is absolutely effortless.

    And VLC which many Windows and Mac users already use also plays Ogg Theora very nicely.

    Maybe you can waste less time writing such nonsense and research a subject ( for like, 5 minutes ?) before your next post ? Like, read the link on EVERY DOWNLOAD PAGE THERE, “How to play ogg” ?

    Uploading this video now to Internet Archive. Uh, zero effort conversion to gazillion formats. But you knew that.

  4. (cool name!),

    I never said that installing the Theora codecs wasn’t painless. I never said that there weren’t easily found and very clear explanations on how to do it.

    My point is that people won’t do that.

    Or, rather, the only people who will do that are the people who are already well aware of the FSF message.

    Most people think that their computer is set up to view videos, because it plays all of the flash videos and quicktime files that they come across without any problems. If they come across a video which they can’t play then they are unlikely to investigate much further.

    It’s very disappointing, I know. And I wish that it wasn’t true. But if the GNU project had put a flash video up on the page then it would have been seen by far more people. Anyone denying that is overestimating the technical abilities of the average computer user by several orders of magnitude.

  5. It’s a bit silly to not spread the word notwithstanding the file format that the distribution site uses.

    I admire their integrity but not the logic.

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