A recent article on Slashdot, Canonical Offers Sale of Proprietary Codecs for Ubuntu, opens with the following line:
Playing DVDs on Linux that required proprietary codecs has been a source of much pain.
This statement is misleading. The primary reason that DVDs cannot be played by default under most distributions is CSS. To play a DVD with CSS, you need a licensed player that has a key to unlock the CSS or you need to circumvent the CSS. In both cases, the openness of free software is at odds with the desires of the motion picture industry.
To get a key to use in a player, you must pay the DVD CCA $10,000 [Comments on DMCA Hearings, page 1, paragraph 11; original, page 4, paragraph 3] and agree to their terms, which include hiding the key (not possible with open source, since it’s open for everyone to see). So an open source DVD player is not possible and a free player would be difficult to make because someone would have to foot the $10,000 required by the DVD CCA for a key.
To circumvent the CSS, you need a tool like DeCSS or libdvdcss. Unfortunately, it is illegal to use these in most countries because of anti-circumvention laws, which were brought about primarily by recording industry and motion picture industry lobbyists. Because of a lack of understanding by politicians and the lobbying power of various industries, the anti-circumvention laws of most countries go above and beyond what is necessary to prevent copyright infringement, making it illegal to circumvent technological measures such as CSS for virtually any reason.
Since making a free DVD player is difficult and circumventing CSS is illegal (as outlined above), a commercial DVD player is the only real solution to playing DVDs on GNU/Linux. So Canonical has given people the option of purchasing a DVD player if they do not want to take the legal risks involved in circumventing the CSS and using a free and open source DVD player.
Are proprietary codecs required to play a DVD? It depends how you define “proprietary”. DVD Video is usually stored using the MPEG-2 codec [Wikipedia]. While there are many patent holders that claim to hold patents on MPEG-2 [Wikipedia], none have litigated for using MPEG-2 decoders without royalty payments in recent years. Debian includes an MPEG-2 decoder [debian-legal] and, because Debian hasn’t had any legal issues, Ubuntu also includes an MPEG-2 decoder [Main Inclusion Report for ffmpeg]. However, some distributions have chosen not to include MPEG-2 support. Fedora does not support MPEG-2 [Forbidden Items], nor does openSUSE [Restricted Formats]. Because of the apparent lack of concern by MPEG-2 patent holders, it appears that using an MPEG-2 decoder will not get you into legal trouble.
I suppose one could argue that the patent status of MPEG-2 makes it proprietary. My main beef with the Slashdot article was that it focused on proprietary codecs and made no mention of the primary problem with using a free DVD player on GNU/Linux: CSS. Furthermore, the article did not mention MP3 at all, which is far more problematic for inclusion in distributions than MPEG-2 and probably more widely-used. Slashdot should have noted that Canonical’s software offerings provide legally-licensed proprietary codecs and a legally-licensed DVD player (CyberLink PowerDVD), as the original article did. It is important for consumers to be aware that patented codecs are one of many problems hindering free and open source software, not the only problem.