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Leaping Linux's Patent Hurdle

In the wake of my last column, Why Linux Is Already A Success, I got a great many comments and letters from people who agreed completely with my point of view -- that Linux was already a success on its own terms. I did, however, receive a reader comment that added some sobering real-world perspectives.
In the wake of my last column, Why Linux Is Already A Success, I got a great many comments and letters from people who agreed completely with my point of view -- that Linux was already a success on its own terms. I did, however, receive a reader comment that added some sobering real-world perspectives.

Said comment was by reader Jim Garret, who wrote: "This article makes a good point, but you also have to consider multimedia codecs. Linux will have succeeded when a user can see and hear everything on the web that a Windows user can -- legally. (I'm in the USA, so perhaps I'm handicapped on this point!)"

Not every Linux user has to deal with software patents, but it has been something of a cloud hanging over everyone's heads. If you want to legally decode certain sound or video formats (mainly, MP3 audio), you need to pay for a license. Ditto DVDs, which require some kind of royalty fee per player sold. DVD playback is something of its own weird issue: It's entirely possible to run programs that play DVDs without paying a cent (the VLC player, for instance, does this), and while no one has yet gone to jail for doing so, the legality of using such a program is still a gray area.

Keep in mind, it's not impossible to play MP3s or watch DVDs as-is on Linux right now. It's not even particularly hard; it just involves manually installing the proper codecs after you finish setting up everything else. But most people would, I imagine, like to do those things without jumping through any extra hoops or, more importantly, worrying about which possible patent-holder's toes they're stepping on. Part of the list price of every copy of Windows sold includes the licensing for the software patents used in it -- a necessary evil, much like the fact that Windows itself has a price tag at all.

There are formats that are not patent-encumbered -- the Ogg Vorbis audio codec, for instance -- but most people don't have most of their music in such a format and aren't inclined to convert it all, with a possible loss of quality.

To that end, there are a few ways to deal with the situation.

One, rework the patent system. Given the rumblings building steam in Washington right now, that may not be as absurd as it might seem at first -- but it's still a long way off. (It does have the advantage of knocking out ten other problems in one fell swoop, though.)

Two, create a for-pay Linux distribution with proper licensing costs for any possible patent usage. The problem is that the only people who want to pay for Linux are corporate customers, who are generally paying for support; I suspect everyone else is not going to shell out for Linux, patent indemnity or not, when they can do an end run around the patent muddle on their own.

Three, draw a line in the sand and simply declare that, with the privilege of using Linux, you have to give up anything that's patent-encumbered as a rule. At least, out of the box. That's pretty much what people have been doing so far -- and while it hasn't exactly been the barrier to Linux adoption, it hasn't helped.