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Canonical, Ubuntu, and Software Patents

Posted in Europe, GNU/Linux, Patents, Samba, Ubuntu at 9:12 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Summary: How software patents tax comes into Ubuntu (at OEM level)

YESTERDAY we mentioned Canonical’s awkward situation when it comes to MPEG-LA. This whole subject has generally been explored recently in (chronologically ordered):

  1. Microsoft Brings MPEG-LA-LA Land to the Web and Threatens GNU/Linux With Software Patent Lawsuits
  2. Steve Jobs: “A Patent Pool is Being Assembled to Go After Theora and Other “Open Source” Codecs Now.”
  3. Apple’s and Microsoft’s New Motto: Do More Evil, Together
  4. “Behind the Open Codec FUD Attack, W3C Captured by Microsoft, Apple, Nokia and So On?”
  5. Behind the Microsoft Puppetmaster: SCO-Type Libel, Acacia-Type Patent Trolls, and Novell-Type Patent Deals to Make GNU/Linux Not Free (Gratis)
  6. Patents Roundup: Red Hat on Patent Trolls; Apple Antitrust; Microsoft Attacks Theora, Which is Needed to Save Our Video Culture
  7. Apple and Microsoft a Threat to Culture (Data), Not Just Software (Tools)
  8. “The fight has been around a long time, now the target of Microsoft is Theora”

Canonical is based in the UK, where software patents are mostly invalid (bar Nokia’s utter greed [1, 2], which makes no sense).

Gizmodo and Engadget have both just covered the legal minefield which is H.264 and more comments on the latter article can be found in LWN (a GNU/Linux perspective).

The president of the FFII interprets the above by quoting “In order to ship an H.264 decoder with Firefox, Mozilla would have to pay the MPEG-LA something around $5 million a year” and he also cites this item from The Register, which says: “What’s more, Canonical – Ubuntu’s commercial sponsor – is now the only Linux maker to license H.264/AVC, the closed and patented technology used to compress video.”

This is not entirely new to us and it can certainly explain price oddities. The H says that “Canonical clarifies its H.264 licence” and so does The Register.

When purchasing an OEM machine with Ubuntu pre-installed, there is currently no way to tell, without the manufacturer explicitly specifying them, which software and codecs are bundled with the machine. A device may be validated as Ubuntu Compatible, which means the OEM has tested the system and Canonical has verified the test, or as Ubuntu Certified, which means that Canonical have performed the testing. Kenyon points to the Ubuntu Certified list on the Canonical site, which lists systems from Lenovo, ASUSTek, HP, Toshiba, Samsung and Dell. Kenyon added “We have explored setting some minimum requirements for codecs, but this is not something that we presently do”.

So the rule of thumb is that an arbitrary Ubuntu system does not have a H.264 licence via Canonical, unless it’s an OEM system which specifically lists the H.264 licence in its documentation or marketing materials.

H.264 is not the only patent issue in Ubuntu. Last week we wrote about Likewise in Ubuntu and here is someone who is not concerned about it:

It’s funny, but when you talk to Jerry Carter, he doesn’t sound like someone who’s part of a conspiracy to bring down Linux/Windows interoperability and from there enable the downfall of Linux itself. He comes across as far less evil.

Yet last summer, Carter, who is Director of Engineering at Likewise Software, and his co-workers were practically accused of doing exactly that when Likewise CEO Barry Crist detailed the hows and whys of Likewise-CIFS pulling away from the Samba codebase.

In our previous posts about Likewise [1, 2, 3, 4] we explained their role in playing the software patents game. They are former Microsoft staff, hacking on Samba and selling it with patent ‘protection’. Ubuntu should stick with just Samba. As for codecs, people can fetch these themselves (if they are required at all).

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