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The FSF's approach to using online videos for advocacy

by Greg Farough Contributions Published on Aug 06, 2020 10:38 AM

A consistent bit of feedback we hear from both current and potential free software supporters is: do better at using video to communicate the importance of free software philosophy. If we aim to make free software a "kitchen table" issue, it is imperative we reach new audiences and make our points clearly, in formats that successfully engage people with limited time, across a diverse set of learning styles. From a technical perspective, this means reaching them where they are -- or more specifically -- on whatever device they are using at the moment.

Many unfortunately commonly used devices such as the iPhone do not support the video and audio formats we prefer to use in the world of free software. Apple's iron grip on the device prevents all but technically advanced users from installing the software necessary to play these formats: among them Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, and WebM. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and other free software activists advocate for these formats due to the danger posed by software patents, a pernicious legal invention that casts a dark cloud over all software development. Software patents make it possible for patent owners who can state their case well enough to make claims against any piece of free software. This alone puts developers at risk. One doesn't even need to have a valid patent to threaten action: if the developer lacks the funds to defend themselves, an absurd patent claim could be equally dangerous.

In contrast to this, some authors of common formats choose to freely license any potential patent claims along with all other aspects of their project. Groups like these are intentionally helping to create the world we want to live in, and they are worthy of our support.

While we must continue campaigning against Apple and other companies for their support of software patents and insistence on trying to control users, we can't do that nearly as effectively if users of those platforms can't hear us. Without supporting video codecs other than those above, such as Advanced Video Coding (commonly called H.264), we run the risk of reaching only those who already know about free software.

To make it possible for users new to free software to watch the videos we make about free software, we've set up a "fallback" system for our embedded video player. Formats like WebM and Ogg Theora are preferred, but if these are not supported by the device, a file encoded in H.264 is played instead. Thus, without signing any agreement "buying" or attaining any supposed patent license, we can make sure that these users can access our materials. Ideally, these videos will motivate them to move to a device or operating system that respects their freedom. This brings one more person into the "free world," moving us closer to eliminating software patents and proprietary software altogether.

Although formats preferred by the free software community are now much more widespread than they were when we launched the PlayOgg campaign, most media sharing sites require you to use nonfree software (often in the form of JavaScript) or agree to ethically unacceptable terms of service (often claiming to prohibit you from writing your own software similar to that running the service). True to our principles, the FSF self-hosts all of its media, supports decentralization and federation, and never requires nonfree JavaScript. The FSF will continue campaigning against software patents, and will always ensure that our materials can be viewed by systems that exclusively run free software.

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