Open News Archive in Open Formats?

The BBC has released 80 news clips under their not-quite-free UK-only licence as the Open News Archive (from Slashdot). The three formats available are Windows Media Player, Quicktime and MPEG-1.

Are any of these three formats playable on my Ubuntu system without breaking UK law (either patent or copyright)? Totem, by default, doesn’t seem to be able to play the Quicktime or the MPEG files.

Maybe Dirac isn’t ready for prime time yet, but the Theora bitstream format has been frozen since alpha 3, so they could have provided it in that…

17 thoughts on “Open News Archive in Open Formats?

  1. Well my non-expert reading of the license suggests that you can creative a derivative work as long as you release it under the same terms. So I don’t see any reason (in principle) why someone couldn’t transcode from one of the existing formats to a Free format and make the content avaliable to UK citizens. It’s not quite as nice as releasing in a Free format to begin with but it is a reflection of the (in my eyes) very friendly license and overall good intentions behind the release of the material.

  2. jgraham: Indeed, the licence is nice like that. Except that if running a decoder on it (for transcoding) is legal in the UK, then I should be able to watch the video straight without a need to transcode. And if it’s not, I could give the file to someone outside the UK to transcode for me – but then I’ve broken the other part of the licence. :-(

  3. Except that if running a decoder on it (for transcoding) is legal in the UK, then I should be able to watch the video straight without a need to transcode

    Indeed you should, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC were willing to release the material in a format for which Free players exist (indeed they encourage feedback). But it should surely be possible to transcode the material without breaking the law – one needs a single UK citizen with legal software (probably running under Windows or MacOS) which can decode MPEG/Quicktime/Windows Media and encode to a Free format. This is still some way from being an ideal solution for users of Free software, but it does provide a legal (if suboptimal) solution (I think).

    On the other hand, I think providing feedback about the dificulties of Quicktime/MPEG/Windows Media and Linux to the BBC is likely to be reasonably fruitful.

  4. Judging by Nero Burning ROM, VCD/MPEG1 is free to use, and SVCD/MPEG2 is not.

    You have to pay a separate fee to allow SVCD burning.

  5. “one needs a single UK citizen with legal software”

    I’m a married UK citizen. Does that count? ;)

  6. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. If the solution depends on me having non-free software, it’s not ideal. This also means that if the solution depends on someone else having it, it’s also not ideal. So yes, perhaps there are people in the UK who can legally transcode the stuff, but then I can probably legally transcode it too, if I reboot into Windows XP and download/install some non-free software. That’s not enough. :-)

    Also, my question has two parts. 1) Are any of these formats free? If so (and maybe MPEG-1 is), 2) why does my Ubuntu Totem not play them? :-)

  7. The way I understand it, mpeg-1 ( is patent encumbered in the US, I do not know the british laws well enough. Quicktime format is just .mov which is just a container file, it most of the time uses Sorenson which is not open( . If Ubuntu shipped with mpeg or quicktime support out of the box, it would be in danger of litigative action from the patent holders in the US.
    Now if you do want to see these things:

  8. MPEG-1 audio layer 3 (the same as MP3) has patented technology. There are at least two companies (Fraunhover, Thomson) which claim to have patents in MP3. There are also companies that claim to have patents on MPEG-1 audio layer 1 and 2. So even if MPEG-1 video is not patented you don’t have audio support without licensing problems.

    More information:

  9. What I’m confused about is why you can’t play it. Totem plays the MPEGs fine for me…

  10. On my system (Gentoo Linux) totem will play Quicktime and MPEG’s, so it’s not impossible. I have it compiled with the use flages: -a52 -debug +dvd +flac +gnome -lirc +mad +mpeg -nsplugin +ogg -theora +vorbis +win32codecs -xine +xv.

    I don’t know why your desktop doesn’t by default but it’s probably because viewing those video types reqires some non-free libraries. Acording to the ebuild, adding the ‘mpeg’ use flag adds the ‘gst-plugins-ffmpeg’ (this may be called something else in apt) package as a dependancy. You could try installing that. Otherwise you could check out the ubuntu forums. I’ve heard they’re community support is almost rival with Gentoo’s.

    As far as Quicktime support, I’m not sure, but it might be in the win32codecs package.

  11. OK, so it turns out I needed the packages gstreamer0.8-mad and gstreamer0.8-mpeg2dec. These are both in Ubuntu’s universe repository. Does that mean it’s legal for me to install them?

    The mad package claims to decode MP3s, and my rhythmbox now appears to play them. I thought there were patent licence fees to pay before I could do that.

  12. Gerv,

    Many distributions (including Ubuntu) have decoders for formats such as the mpeg video and audio codecs available in some form, somewhere. They generally DON’T include them in the base system, as they’re AT BEST legally dubious, and in many cases are known to be outright illegal. Debian, for instance, has a head-in-the-sand approach to this problem – for cases where no _active_ enforcement has happened (such as non-embedded mp3 decoders), they’re ignoring the problem (mp3 encoders HAVE had the patents enforced against them, so aren’t as easily available)

    I’m not an expert in UK patent law (indeed, I’m not an expert in patent law anywhere; I have a passing understanding of it at best), but I’d be extremely surprised if these formats weren’t covered by UK patents. This means that it’s not legal for you to use them.

    This is precisely WHY exists – to provide free, open alternatives to the proprietary codecs (MPEG is fairly open, but not at all free). In fact, development on the vorbis codec was originally started as a direct response to patent enforcement on MP3. We (I’m one of the xiph people) would love to see more content available in these free formats, so the more people email the BBC asking them for this stuff in free formats, the better! Personally, I haven’t do so: though I’m a UK citizen, I’m not a UK resident, so I’m not able to download the content anyway (sigh…)

    The end result: if you disregard the law, it’s very easy to find “free” decoders for these formats for common player software. They are not, however, legal in many or most jurisdictions.

    One final note: my employer, Fluendo, has paid for an unlimited MP3 decoding license, and has developed a decoder which we’re giving away – so should the distributions choose to include this in the future, they can legally include MP3 decoding functionality (but this doesn’t help with video). If the distributions don’t, then the plugins are available from our webshop for the low, low price of �0.00 from

    For now, these probably won’t do you any good – they’re plugins for the current version of gstreamer (0.10) which your linux distribution probably doesn’t yet include (ubuntu has it in dapper – the next release – but not in the current version, breezy).


  13. In Ubuntu 5.10 you can install VLC 0.8.2 through Synaptic Package Manager. I think that will let you play back the MPEG video, but not Windows Media or QuickTime – the former is only supported on Windows and the latter on Windows and Mac OS X.

    This is one reason why vidcasting (or whatever its name is today) probably won’t take off – whereas almost all platforms and devices play MP3s, there isn’t a similar ubiquitous video format. Which is a bind for content producers, as you’ll often have to make video available in several formats, and for consumers who have to make confusing choices.