On Linux DVD Players

by on May 10, 2006 · 16 comments

Ms. Singleton has wrapped up her two-part critique of me and my paper. She takes a few more personal jabs at me than I think was called for, but she also make some substantive arguments. I’m going to keep my focus on the latter.

Singleton makes two broad points: first, CSS licensing is not a barrier to the creation of Linux DVD players, and in any event, Linux DVD players are a tiny market so we shouldn’t be too concerned about them. And secondly, DRM is a more effective piracy deterrent than I say it is. I’ll address her first point here, and come back to the second point in a future post.

I want to start by stepping back for a bit of perspective. In my paper, I claimed there were no Linux software DVD players. It turns out that isn’t true. There appear to be two DVD-playing programs for desktop Linux operating systems: One for the Linspire version of Linux, and the other for TurboLinux. (She also mentions LinDVD, which is designed for proprietary set-top boxes, not general-purpose computers, which was what I was talking about the in the paper)

Now, what’s striking about these two players is that each is a proprietary player tied to a relatively obscure Linux distribution. As near as I can tell (Linspire’s DVD player doesn’t list system requirements) these players will only work with their respective versions of Linux. If you are a user of any of the dozens of other distros–including more popular ones such as SUSE, Debian, Red Hat, or Ubuntu–you’re out of luck.

So while it’s not true that there are no legel DVD players for Linux, it appears to be the case that the vast majority of Linux users don’t have a legal option for playing DVDs on their computers. More to the point, it’s definitely true that there are no legal open source DVD players, on Linux or any other platform.

The question we need to ask is, why? Singleton offers two reasons. First, she says that it’s such a trivial market that they can’t scrape together the $15,000 licensing fee. And second, open source developers have an ideological hostility to copy protection and so they aren’t willing to abide by the lincensing requirements:

Some open source developers don’t believe in DRM and the restrictions that it has been used to support. Some don’t want to hide keys.

I think this rather misses the point. By definition, it’s impossible for an open source project to “hide the keys” and remain open. What defines an open source project is that its source code is available for users to inspect and modify. Any encryption keys would be in the source code someplace, which means that anyone who wanted to know what they were could download the source and see. So “hiding the keys” is, by definition, impossible for an open source project.

Her response to that is presumably that if DRM and open source are incompatible, so much the worst for DRM. [Edit: I obviously mean “so much the worse for open source”]

Before I examine that argument, though, I need to establish a bit more background. Because in point of fact, the market for Linux DVD players is not tiny or obscure. There are several actively developed ones, including Ogle, MPlayer, and Xine. Each of them requires the use of libdvdcss, a library that decrypts CSS-encoded DVDs. Although it’s never been tested in court, libdvdcss is probably an illegal “circumvention device” under the DMCA, which is why it’s hosted on a server outside the United States.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ogle, MPlayer, and Xine are not “piracy tools” in any reasonable sense of the word. They’re designed for playing DVDs, not making illicit copies. Moreover, libdvdcss doesn’t have any keys to hide. The CSS encryption scheme isn’t very strong, and so libdvdcss cracks it using a brute-force method. This method would work even if the DVD CCA had succeeded in keeping all CSS encryption keys private.

So with all of that in mind, how do we evaluate this argument?

CSS is a standard like any other. It has competitive implications; those not willing to work with the standard must find a market niche outside of it. It isn’t the fault of that standard if the niche is a very small one. The relative obscurity of Linux players has little or nothing to do with the DMCA… Adherence to the view that content should be free and clear of restrictions will keep open source developers perpetually in niche markets.

What I’m concerned about isn’t the “obscurity” of DVD players–in point of fact, MPlayer and Xine are no more “obscure” than any other Linux software–but their illegality. The illegality of libdvdcss (and by implication the illegality of MPlayer, Xine, et al) are a direct and obvious consequence of the DMCA. If MPlayer or Xine were to raise $15,000 and purchase a license from the CCA, the only thing they’d get that they don’t already have is a promise by the CCA not to sue them under the DMCA.

To say that MPlayer and Xine are a niche market “outside the standard” is begging the question. The only reason they’re “outside” is that the DMCA has made them illegal. It has nothing to do with “the view that content should be free and clear of restrictions.” Even Linux users who are perfectly willing to pay for DVDs and refrain from making illicit copies are prohibited from watching them on open source players.

Now my question is, what function is served by banning MPlayer and Xine? Presumably her answer is that they have to be illegal for DRM to work, and functional DRM is more important than Linux users’ freedom to use open source DVD players. I think this is misguided, because I don’t think the DMCA does much to prevent piracy–that’s an argument of its own that I’ll elaborate on in a subsequent post. What I want to close this post with is some thoughts on why it matters.

The most important reason it matters, I think is that the interest of Linux users matter as much as the rest of us. I think it’s very easy for that to get lost in public policy debates, because most computer geeks are too busy writing code to work at think tanks or hire lobbyists. Forcing hundreds of thousands of people to break the law if they want to do something as innocuous as watch a DVD isn’t right.

But the impact could actually extend beyond Linux users. Open source operating systems serve as incubators for technologies that often later make their way to proprietary operating systems. Exhibit A here is Firefox, now the principle alternative to Microsoft’s browser, which was primarily developed by Linux users. But there are lots of other examples. A non-trivial number of people now use Open Office as an alternative to Microsoft Office. My nerdy (and beautiful) girlfriend points out that the GIMP, an open source PhotoShop alternative, and GAIM, an open instant messaging client, also now have widely used Windows versions. And Apple’s Mac OS X literally wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for open source software–literally dozens of major components of the operating system were developed by the open source community.

If Xine and MPlayer weren’t illegal in the United States, there’s every reason to imagine they might offer a user-friendly Windows and Mac version, just as FireFox does. Apple might decide bundle it with its operating system. Google might distribute it with its Google Pack, as it does the FireFox browser. Linux distributions could bundle it with their operating system, making Linux that much more accessible to non-nerds wanting to try out a new OS. Perhaps most importantly, Americans wanting to contribute to the project wouldn’t have to worry that they were breaking the law.

Open source software isn’t just the cheapskate’s version of proprietary software. The open source development model has unique strengths that makes it superior for the development of some (certainly not all) kinds of software. It’s possible that DVD players are in that category. But as long as we ban open source DVD players, we’ll never know. Personally, I think that if we’re going to cut off a source of potential innovation (and DVD players are far from the only type of open source software banned by the DMCA) we should have a very good reason for doing so. As I’ll argue in another post, the anti-piracy justification Singleton offers fall well short of the mark.

Update: I’ve edited this post slightly for tone.

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