If you’ve ever tried to get multimedia and DVD playback working in Ubuntu, you’ve probably heard about two software packages called w32codecs and libdvdcss2. Those will certainly help you get functionality, but are they legal? I’ve often seen people asking other Ubuntu Forums members if the codecs are legal, and there’s a lot of speculation without supporting documentation.
I’ve done some pretty extensive internet searching and have yet to come across any official sources of any kind (Microsoft, MPAA, court decisions, etc.) declaring these packages illegal. There is also a lot of talk about certain packages being possibly legal or illegal depending on what country you live in, but people are pretty vague, too, about what the laws are and which countries can or will enforce those laws. The general consensus seems to be that the United States is the most restrictive, but it doesn’t mean European or other countries are totally permissive.
One of the few unofficial statements on libdvdcss2 is Linux Questions’ Wiki entry on it, which currently reads:
The libdvdcss library can be used to decode encrypted DVDs on a Linux system. Most – but not all – commercially marketed DVDs are encrypted. Contrary to the FUD and popular belief, the purpose of this encryption has nothing whatsoever to do with copy protection. It was developed so that an encrypted DVD could only be played on a licensed player. Licenses are granted by The DVD Forum.
While proprietary DVD players under Windows (such as WinDVD) carry a license and come with a built-in authentication, the situation is a bit more delicate under Linux. Linspire is one linux distribution that is actually licensed by the the DVD Forum.
Libdvdcss must not be confused with DeCSS (be sure to see the wikipedia page) – these are entirely different. Whereas DeCSS uses a cracked dvd player and was alleged to have constituted a breach of the law in Norway, and was fought over in court (proceedings eventually were dropped), libdvdcss has never been the subject of legal proceedings anywhere in the world. In contrast, libdvdcss itself is a key cracking program, and simply creates and tries keys until it hits on the right one.
Googling produces little firm information about the actual legal situation concerning libdvdcss in various specific jurisdictions. Binaries can be downloaded from many locations and libdvdcss compiles by default into MPlayer. It appears at this time that much of the fuss of a few years ago has died down.
So, while there is no question that Norwegian and US courts (at least, if not other countries) have found DeCSS use to be illegal, this article seems to assert that libdvdcss2 and DeCSS are not the same thing.
However, the Synaptic Package Manager description (if you have the Medibuntu repositories enabled) for libdvdcss2 reads as follows:
Library for accessing DVDs like block device using deCSS if needed
libdvdcss is a simple library designed for accessing DVDs like a block device without having to bother about the decryption. The important features are:
- Portability. Currently supported platforms are GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, BSD/OS, BeOS, Windows 95/98, Windows NT/2000, MacOS X, Solaris, and HP-UX.
- Simplicity. There are currently 7 functions in the API, and we intend to keep this number low.
- Freedom. libdvdcss is released under the General Public License, ensuring it will stay free, and used only for free software products.
- Just better. Unlike most similar projects, libdvdcss doesn’t require the region of your drive to be set.
This package contains the libdvdcss2 runtime library.
This is in Medibuntu as it violates patents.
Well, as you can see from the description, libdvdcss2 will use deCSS “if needed,” and the maintainers of the package say “it violates patents.” If you follow the link the videolan.org, you can eventually find your way to its FAQ entry on libdvdcss:
Is libdvdcss legal?
The use and distribution of the libdvdcss library is controversial in a few countries such as the United States because of a law called the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). If you are unsure about the legality of using and distributing this library in your country, please consult your lawyer.
Beware: VLC media player binaries are distributed with the libdvdcss library included.
So the most VLC’s Wiki can say is that it’s “controversial.” The “consult your lawyer” remark pretty much sums it up, though. A lot of countries, including the United States, decide the legality of behavior not just in how the law is written but also in how the law is interpreted. And the courts usually do not decide how to interpret a law until a case is brought to trial. At this point, it’s probably pretty safe to say that if the MPAA (or the equivalent organization in your country of residence) wanted to go after a user for installing libdvdcss2, it’s very likely the user could be found guilty. However, as far as I know, no Linux user ever has been brought to trial for using libdvdcss2.
It was a lot tougher finding any information (official or unofficial) on the legality of w32codecs. The explanations I’ve heard from random Ubuntu Forums members have all seemed to indicate that the package is illegal by its very nature (I don’t understand all the technical details, but I believe they’re pretty much the exact codecs from Windows—not a reversed engineered imitation of those codecs or some alternative to those codecs) and probably illegal in every country that chooses to enforce software patent laws. But, again, I don’t have any official or even unofficial statement from a Wiki or organization on the issue. And, unlike with libdvdcss2, the w32codecs Synaptic Package Manager description doesn’t outright state the package violates patents:
Win32 codec binaries
This package contains Win32 codec binaries, required for the
decompression of video formats that have no open source alternative.
This is in Medibuntu for its non-free license.
When I went to MPlayer’s site, though, I couldn’t find any information on w32codecs‘ legality.
The bottom line
If you’re worried about the ethical or legal implications of using libdvdcss2 or w32codecs, either don’t install them or hire a lawyer and see whether it’s prudent, in accordance with your country’s laws, for you to install them. If, however, you believe, based on what I’ve presented here, that the legality of these packages is questionable and you’re willing to take the risk of being prosecuted in the future for using these packages, go ahead and install them if you want. Otherwise, if you want to install them anyway and don’t really care about legality, then I don’t know why you’re even bothering to read this.