Legalizing Linux DVD Playback: Why Bother?

DVD playback on Linux is still illegal in many places, but guess what? Users soon won't care.

I just finished writing that new book about Fedora 13 last night, so I'm feeling pretty good right now. It's nice to have a project like that put to bed.

(I'd put up the link, in a shameless act of self-promotion, but it's not online yet.)

Of course, when writing any beginner's Linux book, invariably the topic of DVD playback comes up, and I always wrestle with what to tell new Linux users about the convoluted legal mess that watching a DVD on a Linux machine has become.

For those who are unfamiliar, DVDs are encrypted with a content scrambling system (CSS) that is designed to prevent unauthorized machines from playing DVDs. What it's really for, of course, is to prevent unauthorized machines from copying the content of a DVD, so illicit copies of Did You Hear About the Morgans? won't be distributed freely across the Internet.

CSS is licensed by the DVD Copy Control Association, which works in lock-step with the Motion Picture Association of America to prevent copyright violations. The upshot of the CSS license is this: if you have a DVD playback device, then you need to license the CSS encryption code. No license, then no DVD.

The problem is, for Linux users, very few software developers have ever had the funds or the inclination to license CSS. Linspire touted the inclusion of LinDVD and PowerDVD within the Linspire 6.0 release, but it was soon pulled when the company realized no one was going to buy Linspire anyway. This is the reason other Linux distributors have declined to include a licensed DVD player within their repositories: they know full-well there's a slew of good, but unlicensed, Linux software out there (thanks to DeCSS), and no one is going to purchase a copy and pick up the costs for the CSS license. And there is little chance a Linux vendor is going to pick up the cost themselves.

Which puts these vendors in a precarious position. Legally, they cannot endorse CSS-unlicensed DVD playback software, especially in the US, because it would put them at odds with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, among other laws. So, they split the difference: distributors will state forthrightly that DVD playback software is not officially released or supported, but will mention that some information about it is available on third-party sites.

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

This does not change the fact that as a US resident, if I watch a movie on my Linux machine on a DVD I either own, rent, or borrowed from the public library, I am going to be breaking the law.

I have a strong suspicion, however, that this situation may be rendered moot very soon.

The answer lies in the same reason the local Blockbusters in my city are starting to close down: streaming media. With pay-per-view movies on satellite and cable, and Netflix movies that will stream onto PCs, traditional DVD use is sharply declining. The Netflix model is especially intriguing: why buy a DVD at all, when ultimately I can get it anytime as part of a monthly subscription plan?

Of course, right now there is no Netflix service for Linux, because they're using Microsoft Silverlight as their video player, and even with Moonlight, Netflix playback is not an option because of Netflix's and Moonlight's opposing DRM stances. Amazon's Video on Demand is supposed to work with an up-to-date Flash install on your browser, but I've found it to be a bit glitchy.

If I were a Linux vendor, I would be looking very closely at getting such technologies working, and soon. Because the investment in development will be worth it--even if there's a license involved.

The reason why paying for a CSS license doesn't work for Linux software developers is that no one will pay a one-time purchase fee and there's no revenue to be generated from playing one's own DVDs. With a streaming subscription service, the latter argument is destroyed. Anyone who can come up with a working Linux client for one of the popular streaming services is going to be able to make some serious money, because a small cut of the subscription costs will generate a nice, steady stream of revenue.

This is something I will expect from the Android crowd, and soon. There's already plenty of streaming video apps for Android, so all you need to do is get an app to plug into an online video provider. And hey, remember those Blockbuster stores that are closing? Turns out the company is set to release an Android app soon. Given that any future tablet release from Google will likely run on Android, this could potentially resuscitate the once-proud video rental chain.

On the desktop side of things, I would suspect that Canonical, which is heavily pushing the cloud, might be working on a similar deal with one of the major video providers for a streaming Ubuntu client. This would be a perfect fit for their desktop- and cloud-centric approach, as well as be a source of revenue. (That Google's upcoming ChromeOS is Ubuntu-based opens that possibility even farther.) Novell's work with Moonlight gives them a technical edge, but the DRM issue is unlikely to bring a compromise.

All of this ultimately means that the question of DVD playback on Linux may become a non-issue. Presented with the option to legally and cheaply download entertainment on their machines, Linux users may simply forgo the legal and ethical hassles of DVD playback and choose the online route.

Is this a good thing? For end-users, it will look that way. But in the long-term, it may be a problem, because frankly the CSS restrictions need to be pushed off a legal cliff, and these online video services may only serve to strengthen DRM in the long run.

So which do we want more: consumer choice or consumer freedom?

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