Canonical clarifies its H.264 licence
With the current controversy over H.264 patent pools and open source codecs, some observers have noted that Canonical is listed as a licensee of H.264 from MPEGLA, the patent pool which licenses out the codec patents, causing some to ask if Ubuntu users were covered by this license. The H talked to Canonical's Chris Kenyon who handles OEM services at the Linux distributor who explained the answer was 'it depends'.
If a user downloads Ubuntu and installs it themselves, then as Ubuntu is free software, no MPEG-LA licence is included. Kenyon says "The good news it that there are other ways of enjoying video content and we strongly believe in the work to establish open source codecs". He noted that the company already "offer strong support for Ogg Vorbis in our standard images".
Where the H.264 licence comes into play, says Kenyon, is if a device has been bought with Ubuntu pre-installed. OEM's have the option when using Canonical's OEM services to obtain the rights to include products and licenses for a number of proprietary packages. Kenyon says "Like Adobe Flash, Adobe Acrobat, Fluendo, RealPlayer, DVD players and other proprietary software, we have a direct re-distribution agreement for H.264".
However, this doesn't mean that if the Ubuntu operating system is pre-installed by the OEM, that it necessarily has a H.264 licence; the vendor may have opted not to include it. "An OEM decides what additional software & codecs they want to ship down to how many Dolby sound channels they want to support" says Kenyon, but the issue "is further complicated by some components (like DVD drives) coming with codec and software licences pre-bundled."
When purchasing an OEM machine with Ubuntu pre-installed, there is currently no way to tell, without the manufacturer explicitly specifying them, which software and codecs are bundled with the machine. A device may be validated as Ubuntu Compatible, which means the OEM has tested the system and Canonical has verified the test, or as Ubuntu Certified, which means that Canonical have performed the testing. Kenyon points to the Ubuntu Certified list on the Canonical site, which lists systems from Lenovo, ASUSTek, HP, Toshiba, Samsung and Dell. Kenyon added "We have explored setting some minimum requirements for codecs, but this is not something that we presently do".
So the rule of thumb is that an arbitrary Ubuntu system does not have a H.264 licence via Canonical, unless it's an OEM system which specifically lists the H.264 licence in its documentation or marketing materials.