Most Linux distributions come without support for MP3 audio, H.264 video, Flash content, and even commercial video DVDs. Patents, closed-source software, and even laws that make certain types of software illegal restrict what can be included in a Linux distribution.
Linux Mint’s inclusion of such restricted software out-of-the-box was one of the things that made it so popular when it was first released. Even if this software isn’t included, it’s very easy to install afterwards.
Most Linux distributions strive to only include open-source software. However, some of the software many people use every day is closed-source software. The Flash browser plug-in is a closed-source program made by Adobe. While Linux distributions could include the Flash browser plug-in if they really wanted to, they would rather only include open-source software. Closed-source software can’t be audited for security and patched in the same way, and Linux distributions don’t want to be stuck supporting it.
Flash isn’t the only piece of closed-source software omitted by default in most Linux distributions. This also applies to Oracle’s Java plug-in (luckily, Java is no longer used as much and there’s an open-source alternative), Google Chrome (which includes some closed-sourced components, so Linux distributions opt to include the open-source Chromium browser Chrome is based on instead), and proprietary 3D graphics drivers for NVIDIA and ATI graphics hardware (these enable better 3D acceleration support).
Many multimedia formats are patented. Even the most popular formats like MP3 for audio and H.264 for video are subject to a huge number of patents. Patent holders form organizations that pool their patents and extract license fees for distributing such software. Linux distributions don’t want to pay patent licensing fees every time they let someone download their software for free.
To avoid all this trouble, Linux distributions don’t include support for these patented media codecs. You can still use certain types of media formats out-of-the-box, including FLAC lossless audio, Ogg Vorbis audio and Ogg Theora video. That’s why included audio tools will default to OGG audio format, not MP3 files.
You can still install the patented codecs later, and they’ll be picked up by the included multimedia applications and used seamlessly.
At one time, Linux distributions didn’t even include support for saving images in GIF format because the LZW compression algorithm required to create GIFs was patented. Unisys, the patent’s owner, went after people generating GIFs without licensing the patent. Luckily, this patent expired in 2003 in the United States.
MP3 patents are expected to expire by 2017 in the USA, at which time Linux distributions and other software can include MP3 support without paying license fees or making themselves vulnerable to lawsuits. Most software probably infringes on hundreds of silly software patents, but multimedia patent consortiums are particularly aggressive.
Support for commercial video DVDs is likely illegal in the USA thanks to the DMCA. Support for Blu-ray and HD-DVD video discs would also likely be illegal for the same reason. These formats all include encryption, and bypassing the encryption without paying a license fee is illegal. Rather than try to hold your hand, Ubuntu just refuses to play video DVDs properly.
It’s also possible that distributing support for DVDs, Blu-rays, and HD-DVDs would result in patent problems, were it legal.
Getting the Restricted Stuff
Most Linux distributions leave users to install these closed-source, patented, and otherwise restricted pieces of software after the initial installation process. Historically, you might install a distribution like Mandrake or Fedora and immediately hunt down a third-party software repository like the PLF (Penguin Liberation Front) or RPM Fusion, add the repository your system, and install the restricted software from there. Linux distributions didn’t want to help you install this software or even host it.
While Ubuntu doesn’t include these packages out-of-the-box, they’re easy to install. When you install Ubuntu, there’s a single checkbox you can click to automatically install Flash, restricted codecs, and other software.
Most of this stuff is available in the Multiverse repository, which is officially hosted by Ubuntu – although it’s considered “not free” and is not officially supported. This allows you to install this software via normal package-management tools – you can even install the Ubuntu restricted extras package to quickly install the most commonly used restricted software later.
Ubuntu will also prompt you to install this software when necessary. If you visit a website that uses Flash, try to play a video or audio file you need a codec for, or have a graphics card that can benefit from a closed-source hardware driver, Ubuntu will prompt you and guide you through the installation process.
Support for commercial video DVDs is the one place Ubuntu falls flat and doesn’t hold your hand, as distributing support for playing DVDs could be a crime in various countries. Ubuntu’s wiki points you to a single script you can run to install support for video DVDs – the script downloads the required software from elsewhere, saving Ubuntu the legal troubles of hosting it on their own servers. The wiki advises that installing the libdvdcss software may be illegal in certain countries, which is another way Ubuntu is trying to protect themselves.
Installing Flash and various codecs used to be a pain point for new Linux users, who often had to learn about unofficial software repositories before they could play MP3s. This has improved dramatically in recent years, although support for many types of media formats still isn’t installed by default.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 04/10/13