In comments to my big DVD post, Urijah points out another obstacle to a completely free and legal version of MPlayer or Xine: the MPEG format is heavily encumbered by patents, and commercial entities generall must pay $2.50 per installation for a license.
I haven’t looked into this issue in detail, but if this article is right, this problem likely extends beyond MPEG-2 to other video-playback technologies:
All patents in the list of the MPEG licence association in regard to the MPEG-4 standard were examined and analysed. After intensive study of relevant literature and more than 100 patents of the relevant companies we can say now: Upon careful examination, we can not find any advances over the prior art in said list that could justify the granting of a patent. Most of these patents should be attackable in court, but who would take the burden of litigation against 900 patents owned by dozens of large companies?
When people talk about “the MPEG-2 patents,” they aren’t referring to a specific patent that describes the MPEG-2 standard. Rather, they refer to 640 holders of patents related to various aspects of the MPEG-2 standard. If 640 patents describe a single video format, it’s a safe bet that a substantial fraction of them cover any conceivable alternative video format. Which means that technically speaking, all free video-playing software is probably technically infringing on numerous patents.
It’s also quite possible that the MPEG-LA wouldn’t bother suing an open source project, which doesn’t have any money anyway. At worst, I would think MPlayer and Xine could charge people $2.50 to download copies of MPlayer or Xine and turn the
tribute revenue over to the MPEG-LA. They could still distribute the source code, so this wouldn’t greatly hamper its development as an open source project.
In any event, the best solution is to repeal software patents, which impede innovation in this and many other software categories.