If VLC can ship a free DVD player, why can't Microsoft?

If VLC can ship a free DVD player, why can't Microsoft?

Summary: Microsoft's decision to remove support for playing DVD movies in Windows 8 has caused some confusion. If the VLC media player can provide DVD support for free, why can't Microsoft? For starters, Microsoft isn't French.

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Microsoft announced this week that Windows 8 will not support playback of DVD movies unless you explicitly add software that supports that feature.

The economic reasons for doing so are compelling (see Microsoft's follow-up FAQ for details), but it’s also a potentially disruptive move for some Windows enthusiasts. So it’s not surprising that some of the initial reactions have been heated and even angry.

I look at the big numbers and walk through the math in a follow-up post; How much do DVD and digital media playback features really cost?

But I wanted to interrupt the discussion here to answer a question that several people have asked.

“Microsoft says the cost of DVD playback adds up to several dollars,” the argument goes. “But I can download the VLC player for Windows and get DVD playback for free. How come VLC can do it and Microsoft can’t?”

Welcome to the wonderful world of software licensing, where today we get to see a real-world example of the differences between commercial software and free software published under an open source license.

Any commercial product—hardware or software—that plays back DVDs has to have a license to a handful of software components that are protected by patents. In particular, you need access to the following:

  • An MPEG-2 decoder. The licensing rights for the MPEG-2 standard are made up of a pool of patents contributed by their inventors. The pool itself is managed by MPEG LA, which collects and distributes royalties on behalf of the patent owners, under a master license agreement. Those rights cost $2 per device. The maker of a cheap DVD player sold at Costco pays $2 per unit for the MPEG-2 rights. Microsoft pays An OEM PC maker who licenses Windows from Microsoft must pay $2 in MPEG-2 licensing fees to enable DVD playback in every copy of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. [Edited to clarify payment requirements]
  • Dolby Digital audio support. This decoder, which is required for DVD movie playback, has to be licensed from Dolby Laboratories, Inc. The licensing schedule isn’t public, but in its annual report for 2011 Dolby revealed that it collected $124 million in licensing fees from Microsoft for the year, with most of that revenue generated from Windows 7. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that Dolby gets at least 50 cents and as much as a dollar for every Windows PC sold.

Microsoft, Apple, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and other companies that make DVD players (hardware and software) have to pay those license fees for every unit they deliver to a customer, which is why you don’t see very many free DVD players.

The noteworthy exception is the VLC media player, which proudly bills itself as “a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and framework.” It explicitly lists DVD as a supported format.

How can that be?

Well, on its “Legal concerns” page the makers of VLC open with a proud declaration: “VideoLAN is an organization based in France,” and “French law … is the only one to be applicable.”

If you skip to the bottom of the English portion of the page, you see why that matters. This is VideoLAN's argument:

Patents and codec licenses Neither French law nor European conventions recognize software as patentable (see French section below).

Therefore, software patents licenses do not apply on VideoLAN software.

The two software libraries that enable DVD and Blu-ray playback in VLC are libdvdcss and libaacs, both of which get their own legal justifications (the bold-faced words are in the original):

libdvdcss is a library that can find and guess keys from a DVD in order to decrypt it.

This method is authorized by a French law decision CE 10e et 9e sous­sect., 16 juillet 2008, n° 301843 on interoperability.

NB: In the USA, you should check out the US Copyright Office decision that allows circumvention in some cases.

VideoLAN is NOT a US-based organization and is therefore outside US juridiction. [sic]

[…]

libaacs is a research project and has an interoperability purpose (see above point).

Moreover, libaacs DOES NOT provide any decryption key. It is based on the official public AACS specification only.

Update: Via Twitter, VideoLAN notes that "libaacs is not yet shipped with VLC. We are waiting for remarks from the French DRM authority."  Their comments include a link to this article (English translation).

I’m sure if one were to ask a lawyer for one of the patent holders in the MPEG-2 or AACS pools, one would get a very spirited argument about the validity of those arguments. That argument would probably invoke the anti-circumvention provisions of the United States' Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But VLC can get away with it primarily because it is a nonprofit organization based outside the reach of the United States legal system and not worth pursuing.

A maker of commercial DVD playback hardware or software would be sued in a heartbeat if they tried to distribute products based on those freeware projects. They’d also run afoul of the General Public License if they tried to include the code in their closed-source, commercial products.

But the VLC project is hardly a rogue player. In fact, as I noted in a 2010 post, Microsoft has provided financial support for VLC:

Anyone can write a media player for Windows and can build in support for whatever media formats they want. No one is “required” to use Windows Media Player—exactly the opposite....

One alternative is VLC, which I have praised before.... In an e-mail to me, one of the core developers of VLC specifically praised Microsoft last year for its assistance, noting that “Microsoft … funded our Windows 7 compatibility program participation.”

Any OEM that includes a DVD player in a new Windows 8 PC will undoubtedly include a licensed DVD Player, such as the Metro version of PowerDVD that CyberLink announced at CES earlier this year. (If PowerDVD is smart, they'll include both the Metro and desktop versions with Windows 8.) You’ll also have an assortment of commercial programs to choose from.

The good news is that as a consumer you can count on the continued availability of VLC as a free DVD (and Blu-ray) playback alternative if you don’t want to pay for the Media Center Pack. And the project continues to evolve. Earlier this week, VideoLAN boasted via its official Twitter account: "by the time Windows 8 is out, we will have even better Blu-Ray support!"

See also:

Topics: Mobility, CXO, Hardware, Microsoft, Software, IT Employment

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132 comments
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  • VLC in Windows Store ?

    And maybe there'll be a spotlighted or recommended link to VLC in the Windows Store? Maybe a Metro version of VLC someday?
    JohnMorgan3
    • please no

      metro vlc where its full screen only? NO THANKS.
      wendellgee2
      • Full Screen

        I use VLC in full screen mode once I start the movie. VLC has controls to toggle between full and partial screen. In Metro, on a tablet, I would thing that you would want the full screen display. On a laptop, Metro isn't a good choice anyway.
        YetAnotherBob
    • Err...

      Then it would violate the GPL (you have to provide source code - if requested to comply). I'm also sure (from the article) that Microsoft can't distribute it.

      Microsoft's hands are tied unless they pony up (and pass that cost on).
      jeremychappell
      • Err...

        With a link to VLC in the Windows Store, they aren't distributing it, it would just be a link. Remember, Metro apps can be installed from the Windows Store, but desktop apps only get links to their authors' sites.
        JohnMorgan3
      • What about Cyberlink?

        I've got Cyberlink's PowerDVD 11, and it seems tro play all forms of DVDs quite well. What's the deal?
        CharlesEtheridge@...
      • GPL Misunderstanding

        YOu don't understand the GPL. Microsoft would have to include a pointer to the website where the VLC source code is available. This could easily be in the "Help" menu on VLC.

        Microsoft isn't required to do anything else, as long as they don't include the VLC source in any other program. If they do, then that program would have to be GPL'd. Microsoft knows that, so they will avoid that situation.
        YetAnotherBob
    • Again

      because VLC is not technically legal in the US, due to the patent laws which it of course bypasses by being located elsewhere, there may be legal issues with Microsoft broadcasting VLC to US customers. If you go out on your own and download VLC, no one is ever going to bother you about it. The law is difficult to enforce on an individual level without Orwellian tracking. But Microsoft is a big target, and they have to worry about things like this.

      For an analogy, there are drugs that are restricted in the US but legally available in other countries. People can and often do buy these drugs online, and customs often doesn't find them. However, if a distributor in the US started advertising this in the US, and setting up a direct conduit for distribution here, they would of course soon be shut down.
      watermark0n
      • Flawed analogy

        The difference is that drugs themselves are illegal. You analogy would only be applicable if drugs were legal but the trafficking of them was not. Alcohol would be a closer but still imperfect analogy. Having alcohol is legal, but there are restrictions on it's distribution.
        tkejlboom
      • By the same measures

        Individuals should not be prosecuted by downloading copyrighted material such as songs, movies and books online. Yet, in the US they are.
        danbi
  • it's not hard to figure out

    [quote]If VLC can ship a free DVD player, why can't Microsoft?[/quote]

    Because MS wants to push their digital downloads. It's that easy.
    muscletissue
    • Perhaps the answer is simple

      Since I can't remember the last time I used a DVD and video libraries now resemble ghost towns, it may be that MS is just recognising that it's a format whose time has passed. HD free to air, HD cable and digital downloads, as well as USB sticks for recording are much more convenient than DVDs.

      Given that VLC already offers DVD playback already for free, I see no reason for MS to support a soon to be obsolete format which can only store a fraction of a cheap USB stick. I also note that more laptops, netbooks and of course ultrabooks and tablets are appearing without the once required DVD player.

      Oh and I'm sure the money MS didn't have to pay helped too ;-)

      This controversy reminds me of the current fracas over Java - a lot of sound and fury over something that no one really needs.
      tonymcs@...
      • It's all about CODECS

        HD free to air, HD cable and digital downloads, as well as USB sticks all require codecs to produce pictures and sound on your computer or connected TV. Regardless of whether your system offers DVD or Blu-Ray optical disc support, it still needs these codecs. Of course, the same software that gives you optical disc playback also gives you the codecs, but there are alternatives for getting just the codecs alone. If you stream from Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc., the codecs come along for the ride and work through Flash, Silverlight, Air, etc. TV DVR software has the needed codecs too. So no one is going to be left out in the cold looking for a way to play their MPEG2/4/h.264 and other media. If you need to rip your legally owned optical discs to watch them on a computer with no optical drive, there is the excellent MakeMKV or the ever popular Handbrake. Optical discs are past their prime but the codecs are alive, kicking and easy to get.
        JoeFoerster
      • Correct, but ...

        As JoeFoerster points out, its all about the codecs. The fact that the MPEG-2 codec used for video on DVDs and the AC-3 codec used for audio on DVDs aren't typically used for anything on the web or for home recordings means that licensing those codecs wouldn't gain Microsoft anything else other than DVD playback. Which is what made it unlikely they would license them.

        h.264 on the other hand, which is used on most Blu-Rays, IS licensed in Windows 8. It may not be important to handle Blu-Rays in the standard version of Windows 8, but h.264 is used EVERYWHERE on the web. Ditto MP3 audio encoding. I wonder if Microsoft is going to license AAC audio codec this time?
        gwconnery@...
      • Soon to be obsolete?

        Do you live in the city tonymcs? Because you seem to be removed from the rest of the world. All people that access the internet do not have cable or dsl, and therefore CANNOT PERFORM DIGITAL DOWNLOADS OR STREAMING! Some of us are only able to use Satellite and have very little download cap.

        Mine happens to be 400 MB per day! That's it. If I go over, then I lose a whole day of access. That 400 MB, is costly also, the average plan on Satellite is 300 MB to 350 MB.

        Then, believe it or not, there are still others that are on dial-up, because they don't have alternatives.

        So there are still many, and I believe the percentages to be high that still rely on DVD's, you're foolish to believe they're going away soon.

        Thanks...
        T-Wrench
  • Ed, please help me out here. I'm really confused now.

    You state neither French law or European conventions recognize software as patentable.

    Does this "convention" apply to pirating and then releasing the stolen software as "open sourced"?

    For example, some enterprising young French hacker, Pierre Picard, for instance, is able to reverse engineer Windows 8. He then releases this OS code under the "open source" name of "French Louvers". Pierre, because he is such an open source idealist with unlimited resources (old French money!), gives his new software program away free of charge, only stipulating, of course, that if anyone else steals or modifies his code that they at least mention his name.

    Under French Law is Pierre home free and Microsoft legally "screwed"?
    kenosha77a
    • I am not a lawyer

      I did not state that. It is a direct quote from VideoLAN's website.
      That is their argument, not mine.

      There are already projects like the example you cite: WINE, for example. But no one is going to "reverse engineer" Windows 8 and produce an OS that works just like it. That is not really a fair analogy for this situation.

      No one is accusing VLC of stealing anything. They have chosen an alternative method for enabling DVD playback that they believe does not violate patent law in their jurisdiction. And so far they haven't been sued.
      Ed Bott
      • Software is not Patentable Per Say

        the decision to allow Software patents in the United States was based on a judges decision in the 1980's that a computer with a different program running on it is a different machine. Machines are patentable. Lists of instructions are not.

        Every software patent relies on that legal decision.

        In Europe, the decisions were a little different. The combination of a specific machine, along with the software for it is required in order to patent software.
        YetAnotherBob
      • Goes further than that...

        The entire argument only exists because greedy and corrupt studios managed to lobby the DMCA through our shoddy excuse for a congress. If that sorry excuse for a law hadn't been passed, there wouldn't be a legal basis for making the content incompatible in the first place. As an analogy, Microsoft can copyright/patent the application Word, but they CAN NOT force you to open every .doc file in Word. In America, the supposed land of the free, your right to decrypt content, for which you have already paid, can be legally contested.
        tkejlboom
    • Ah Those Hypotheticals

      Monsieur Picard better have millions of dollars ready, because it will cost that much to figure out who screwed whom. But, Monsieur Picard, in the first place, had better have the billions of francs needed to reverse engineer Windows 8. Since it isn't final, and some of the code was written nearly 20 years ago, Monsieur Picard will need more than a Number 1 and terse command "Make it so!" to.. make it so, in time for Windows 11.

      Patent infringement can be done by users. Thus, VLC's developers may be shielded by geography, assuming they are, but US users of VLC are subject to US patents, and could be sued, though who would want to spend millions to gain the pennies.

      The patents in question are probably written as covering devices that produce and consume video, in which case I don't think any manufacturer will provide VLC as a workaround to licensing fees. Or if they do, the licensing fee was paid when they bought the DVD units they are using as they assemble their pcs.

      Ultimately, no one sues VLC because no one sees that the return is worth the effort.

      But, back to our question du jour: If VLC can, why can't Microsoft.

      Microsoft can. They choose not to. We are not entitled. If one doesn't like the deal one should take one's business elsewhere. (Last I looked, the two of us were Mac guys. My interest is academic, as a vendor pulls back a feature. Will the customers really care? Will the manufacturers jump for joy if this is a cost transferred from Microsoft to them and lowers thin margins? Is this because optical media is starting to go the way of the rotary phone? I'm tuned in.)
      DannyO_0x98