Restricted modules in Ubuntu

Colin Watson cjwatson at
Fri Jan 16 14:04:50 GMT 2009

On Wed, Jan 14, 2009 at 12:45:49PM +0000, Liam Proven wrote:
> 2009/1/14 Colin Watson <cjwatson at>:
> > On Wed, Jan 14, 2009 at 01:14:03AM +0000, Liam Proven wrote:
> >> And speaking of components and restricted ones, it is a real pain in
> >> the neck to have to manually add in ubuntu-restricted-extras on *every
> >> single Ubuntu box I install*. They are not optional if you want to use
> >> the Web; Flash, Java and so on are pretty much mandatory. So, come to
> >> that, are the w32codecs from the Medibuntu repository.
> >>
> >> I am not American; I am not in America; I never plan to live in
> >> America. Nice place for a holiday, wouldn't want to live there. Yet as
> >> far as I know, I have to jump through hoops installing this stuff
> >> because they can't be included by /United States/ laws. These do not
> >> apply to me.
> >
> > It sounds as if you have been misled. Quite a few of these packages are
> > in fact unredistributable without Canonical paying per-user licence fees
> > due to European copyright and/or patent law as well. European patent law
> > is little better than US patent law (and in fact there are areas where
> > there seems to be more hope for the US than for Europe, as the Supreme
> > Court appears to be swinging back in a more liberal direction), and
> > copyright is generally enforced internationally due to the Berne
> > Convention.
> But surely including them in repositories mirrored around the world
> counts as distributing them?

Things like w32codecs (which you mentioned) are very probably not
redistributable, which is why they *aren't* in Ubuntu repositories
mirrored around the world. Others may redistribute them, but their legal
problems are not ours.

Some of the other packages in ubuntu-restricted-extras do not in fact
redistribute the proprietary content in question, but merely download it
from the Internet (typically from the owner's web site) and install it
on your system. They are a convenience, not redistribution.

For other packages still, the situation is more subtle. It's quite
possible that distributing GPL-incompatible GStreamer plugins *by
default* would violate the licence on GPLed GStreamer applications,
because setting all that up by default goes a bit further than "mere
aggregation" and starts to look rather more like a derived work; but
letting the user put it together after the fact is different. There are
certainly packages that we believe that we can distribute over the
Internet but not ship on physical media. Once you get outside the warm,
comfortable realm of licences compatible with the Ubuntu licensing
policy for main, the interactions start to get very complicated indeed.

Looking through ubuntu-restricted-extras, we have:

  * GStreamer plugins (gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly,
    gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly-multiverse, gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad,
    gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad-multiverse, gstreamer0.10-ffmpeg,

    At least Totem installs these on demand after a prompt about the
    possible legal pitfalls, so there is little real inconvenience in
    not having these installed by default.

  * msttcorefonts

    This package does not distribute the fonts in question directly; it
    downloads them from the Internet and installs them on your system.
    No legal liability for Ubuntu, and we don't want to get into a
    lawsuit fight with Microsoft over it, especially since
    ttf-liberation is looking pretty promising for this.

  * flashplugin-nonfree

    Downloads the plugin from the Internet and installs it, rather than
    distributing it directly. Canonical is now permitted to distribute
    the Flash plugin, but we aren't allowed to put it on mirrors, so it
    can only go on and may not go on CDs.
    Regardless of what we would like to do, and regardless of our own
    policy on the matter, we have talked with Adobe about Flash, and I'm
    quite sure that we would face legal consequences from Adobe if we
    distributed the Flash plugin by default.

  * unrar

    A straightforward non-free application licence: you can't use the
    software to recreate the RAR compression algorithm. I suppose that
    provision might be void in many jurisdictions where
    reverse-engineering is explicitly permitted, but it also says that
    installing and using the software signifies acceptance of these
    terms so who knows. There is probably no practical reason why we
    couldn't distribute this on Ubuntu CDs, but we are not going to
    distribute non-free application code by default.

    Also, there's a promising patch to file-roller floating around that
    installs decompression and extraction backend packages on demand,
    much like totem does with GStreamer plugins, so this should stop
    being an issue soon.

  * libavcodec-unstripped-52

    libavcodec51 can go in main but the Technical Board decided that
    even that it was not legally safe for distribution on Ubuntu CDs
    (one of the subtle cases I mentioned above). I don't recall the
    difference between libavcodec51 and libavcodec-unstripped-52, but I
    doubt that the latter is any more legally safe.

  * libmp3lame0

    An encoder. Don't even go there.

  * libdvdread3

    I'm not sure I want to go here either. (Others are doubtless more
    familiar with the issues than I am, anyway.)

  * sun-java6-plugin

    Largely replaced by OpenJDK, so once we figure out how to cram it
    onto the CD without losing too many other features this should no
    longer be a problem.

> > The codecs are very nearly a lost cause (save for more general efforts
> > to encourage the adoption of free codecs, or until their patents
> > expire), but there is hope for Flash and Java. Gnash is still not quite
> > where we'd like it to be but it is making steady progress; if you want
> > it to improve, start trying to use it for Flash content and file
> > upstream bugs when it doesn't work (you should probably start with 8.10,
> > as it's fairly easy to switch back and forth there). Java is almost
> > solved now that OpenJDK is free, and especially in 8.10 now that
> > icedtea6-plugin supports LiveConnect; at this point the only reason it
> > isn't shipped by default on the CD is space, which is a general problem
> > we need to address anyway.
> Java /is/ Free now, AIUI. It should be in there.

Please review the last sentence you quoted above, which you seem not to
have read properly!

We need to figure out how to get this into the default installation
without losing too many other features in the Ubuntu desktop that people
also want. CD space is a perpetual problem for Ubuntu release
management. (Yes, we have considered the alternatives. That doesn't
change the fact that CDs are still a very popular distribution medium.)

> I've tried Gnash and its relatives, but when it fails, it does not do
> so cleanly, it takes down Firefox with it. I often have 20+ tabs open
> across 2 or 3 windows, so this behaviour was completely unacceptable.
> If it just discreetly barfed and died and took out the content on that
> page, or even on all pages, maybe, but segfaulting the browser is too
> much.

nspluginwrapper should help with this, by isolating it in a separate
process. As I say, there is hope for Flash, but it isn't there yet. That
doesn't mean that we are going to ship the non-free version with Ubuntu;
we are committed to not doing this.

> Are there not free libraries for MP3 /playback/ as opposed to
> encoding? While I've seen restrictions on programs to encode on
> various platforms, playback never seems to be a problem.

There *are* active patents covering MP3 decoding.

This is one case where stepping over the line from electronic to
physical distribution seems (anecdotally) to get the patent holder a
whole lot more interested. MP3 players have been seized in Germany, and
a number of lawsuits have been brought against manufacturers of portable
MP3 players where licensing fees hadn't been paid (bearing in mind that
there are multiple claims to patents covering MP3 by several different

The strongest statement I know of is expressed succinctly by Wikipedia:
"patent holders declined to enforce license fees on free and open source
decoders". There is no guarantee that they'll continue to behave like
this, since patent holders often get more aggressive towards the end of
a patent's life; it's a lot easier to remove packages from our
network-accessible archives than it is to remove them from physical
media in the event of a lawsuit. Furthermore, the thing that patent
holders seem to distinguish is whether you're making a profit, and
Canonical *is* a for-profit company. We would rather not get into this

It is fashionable to blame all the world's "intellectual property" ills
on the United States of America, and to consider that one is immune from
it if one never visits the US. This is false, and it can be a dangerous
misconception. It certainly may be the case that certain large interests
in the US are the source of a good deal of the political influence that
has got us into this mess, although it's rather debatable whether that
is the sole reason. The European Union Copyright Directive implements
the same WIPO treaty as does the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the
US. The United Kingdom's Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 may
surprise you too: making, importing, distributing, or even using
copyrighted works without licence from the copyright owner is a
*criminal offence* in the UK carrying a potential prison term! [1] Who
has the draconian copyright regime now?


Canonical is a well-funded company, and thus a potential target for
lawsuits and other unwelcome investigations. While I'm not speaking for
the company in this, I think I am right in saying that in general we
would rather use those funds for the further development on Ubuntu than
on defending ourselves from legal actions. I realise that this results
in some inconvenience in places, but on balance I'd much rather it be
this way than the other.

As one who has been involved in Ubuntu since its foundation, the
improvements in terms of what is available to Ubuntu users without fee
and often without encumbrance over the last four and a half years have
been startling. There are certainly things I'm quite sure we couldn't
have achieved if we'd just said we were going to distribute everything
and damn the consequences. I'm entirely comfortable with our current
policy and direction in this regard.


Colin Watson                                       [cjwatson at]

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