Software Patents

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Software Patents

The problem with proprietary and patent encumbered media formats

Imagine sitting down to your e-mail. Your sister has sent you some pictures of your niece. However, when you go to look at them, all you see is:

I'm sorry, you need Frobozz Viewer 3.0 to view this file. It's only $19.99, please have your credit card ready.

Later, you go to view your mail on a public computer at the local library. And you get the same dialog box on their computer.

That is the reality for any sound, image, or document format that is encumbered by software patents that require licensing - any application that wishes to view, play, or create them requires paying the patent holders a fee. Normally, software and hardware vendors include this support, but they pass the costs directly onto the consumers in the cost of their software or hardware. For every copy of Microsoft Windows that you buy, or every DVD player that is sold, a portion of that cost goes directly to pay patent licenses; in fact, for DVD players, it can be over a quarter of the final cost . And, since that patent license applies to every copy in use, it's one of the reasons why you are not allowed to freely copy and redistribute software such as Microsoft Windows.

Fedora, however, has a public promise to always be freely redistributable by anyone. That is why Fedora cannot include support for patented media formats - it would break this redistribution promise. This means that, out of the box, you can't directly play media files such as Windows Media, MPEG-4 video, or MP3 audio. Fedora supports open media formats such as Ogg Vorbis and Theora , which are freely implementable and usable by anyone without a patent license.

But you already have all these files you want to play ...

The Fedora Project realizes there are large amounts of media available in patented formats that you want to view or play. Companies like Fluendo provide software to play such formats , legal for use in any location but they have to pay for patent licenses and there not freely available.

If you are in a location where these patents do not apply, you may have other options as well. However given a choice, you should always opt to use free and non-patented open formats which often provide better quality.

What is bad about patented formats?

"Fine," you say. "I'll pay the fee - what's so bad about using patented formats?"

Well, there are many things.

  • No guarantee that your consumers actually will be able to read the data you're trying to produce. If you've reached this page, you've already experienced this - by producing media in a patented format, you automatically limit your audience to whatever platforms the patent holder has licensed their software to.
  • No guarantee of being able to access your data forever. If you're using some software to view a patented media format, what happens if that software vendor goes out of business, or refuses to port their software to newer systems? You no longer have access to your data.

Note that this isn't even restricted to patented media formats - the same applies to popular proprietary formats used for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.

For more about how software patents are bad, see this video , produced by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.

How Fedora works against software patents

  • Fedora sponsors development of free, not patented encumbered open formats

In support of Free Culture, the open web and to reduce the hold of proprietary and patent encumbered codecs, Red Hat has been sponsoring improvements on the open Ogg Theora video codec implementation codenamed Thusnelda via Christopher Montgomery (xiphmont), who created the format and work has resulted in drastic improvements to the codec.

  • Fedora uses free, non-patented, open formats by default that anyone can implement, use, and view without licenses.

Rather than MP3, use Ogg Vorbis. Rather than Windows Media, use Ogg Theora. Rather than Microsoft Office Open XML, use Open Document format documents, or even PDF.

  • Fedora works to fight the spread of software patents.

Fedora supports the same patent promise as Red Hat . Through Red Hat, we support legislation to limit the scope of software patents via organizations such as Open Invention Network which has Red Hat as one of the founding members (with a goal of eliminating their impact entirely), and collaborate with organizations such as FFII and the Electronic Frontier Foundation .

References