If you're like me, you don't put much thought into where your multimedia codecs come from: you run a quick "apt-get install gstreamer-plugins-ugly" on new installs and move on to more important things.  But not everyone's like me, and as Ubuntu moves increasingly into government and the workplace, patent and licensing issues are becoming more and more important for many Ubuntu users.

Over the next couple weeks, we'll be writing about multimedia patents and the Ubuntu community.  This first post outlines the situation and explains why multimedia patents matter more than you may think.

Linux and patents

The Linux community has a long history of shirking restrictive software patents and licenses, which should not surprise anyone.  After all, at the core of the free-software movement is repulsion at the notion of having to abide by terms that users may not agree with in order to use their computers.   Many people use Linux because they want to live a life unencumbered by software patents.

Reality, however, rarely lives up to perfection.  Although many Ubuntu users would like to be able to rely only on software licensed under the GPL, a large number of us have to use proprietary code.  From closed-source video drivers to "binary blobs" in the Linux kernel, non-GPL software is often a pragmatic necessity for getting the most out of a machine.

Why multimedia is different

Multimedia codecs, of course, differ from hardware drivers and firmware in that they're not necessary for a computer to run to its full potential.  But in a world where mp3 and DVD playback is essential for most users, patented multimedia codecs, practically speaking, are as unavoidable as the Nvidia GLX driver.

Patented codecs are also unlike other non-free software upon which many Linux users rely because they have completely GPL-compatible equivalents that work just as well.  Proprietary graphics and wireless drivers are necessary because no equally functional open-source drivers exist; in contrast, the Ogg Vorbis audio codec and Ogg Theora video compressor function just as well by most measures as the proprietary codecs, such as mp3 and the mpegs, that they seek to replace.

In theory, the whole world should compress audio and video files using only free and open-source algorithms.  But it doesn't. The reality is that playback for mp3s and mpegs is as essential for most Ubuntu users as compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats in OpenOffice.

So how do you strike a compromise between perfection and reality?  In the next post, we'll take a look at the different options available for obtaining multimedia playback on Ubuntu, which for legal reasons does not come with most popular codecs installed by default, and why this issue is becoming increasingly important.