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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Wed, 13 Jun 2012

Debian project leader Stefano Zacchiroli and the controversy over Debian Multimedia

I came across Debian project leader Stefano Zacchiroli's Bits from the DPL on Planet Debian -- the most recent bits also living on Stefano's blog and on a Debian mailing list.

The more interesting bits this month include a controversy over duplication between the Debian Multimedia archive and Debian proper.

Stefano suggests that what package belongs where be worked out, or that Debian Multimedia shed its Debian name and move on.

Surprisingly (to me anyway), Christian Marillat of Debian Multimedia didn't argue the point. He just said he's going to change the name of the project and the archive:

I'll move to a new domain name (without debian), for that I need time. Maybe 3 or 6 months should be enough, I don't know exactly.

It seems the confusion, in part anyway, is over the fact that Debian Multimedia isn't an "official" arm of Debian Project. And though Christian is himself a Debian Developer, Debian Multimedia is his own project and not subject to the same governance as Debian itself.

As you follow the thread on the pkg-multimedia maintainers list (again, start here), at issue besides the use of the Debian name and logo is the solicitation of donations and any possible confusion over whether a donation to Debian Multimedia is a donation to the Debian Project (which it is not). I'm not confused.

I'd like to find out exactly which packages are being duplicated between the Debian Project and Debian Multimedia, and what, if any, the differences are.

The reason for Debian Multimedia's existence in the first place is to provide Debian users all the "restricted" multimedia bits like codecs that prevent a "stock" Debian system from working with formats such as mp3, mp4, mov, etc.

One way to get around this is to use a Debian derivative, such as Ubuntu or (a Debian- or Ubuntu-derived) Mint.

But if you want Debian (it's faster, Stable is more stable, and it's more Debian-ish), and you want/need to deal with restricted formats, Debian Multimedia is invaluable.

I'm a believer in software freedom, but the reality -- for me anyway -- is that restricted formats such as mp3, mp4 and Flash aren't going away, and in order to a) get work done and b) use many devices, we need the option to use those "naughty" bits.

Freedom in my case is the ability to learn about free (or "freer," or less-restricted) formats, to prefer them and use them where possible but not to restrict my own freedom to create and consume other formats that are out in the wild.

If I want a totally free system, I'm perfectly capable of removing those nonfree bits that are getting in the way of my free living. And there are projects out there like Trisquel and (to some extent) Debian itself, that offer distributions with varying degrees of freedom from things like proprietary codecs and drivers.

But with Debian Multimedia for Debian, RPM Fusion for Fedora and ... the "restricted extras" portion of the Ubuntu archive, it's nice to have the freedom (small F) to choose the degree of Freedom (big F) you're most comfortable with.

I'd be perfectly happy to:

a) Have the Debian Multimedia archive be renamed just about anything, though I suggest it be called "The Unofficial, Not-Sanctioned-by-Debian Multimedia Archive." Fedora does fine with RPM Fusion not having Fedora in its name at all.

b) Have the restricted packages that are now supplied by Christian in Debian Multimedia instead supplied in a "freedom hating" archive under the auspices of the Debian Project but with plenty of virtual separation so Freedom lovers don't have to remove anything that restricts their Freedom. (I know this won't happen, but it is an option.)

I suspect that part of this bias is a server.-vs-desktop, hacker-vs.-other thing: Servers don't need restricted codecs for the most part. Desktops that are meant for limited uses do. But you have to shun most major entertainments if you use your system for creating and accessing audio and video unless you limit yourself to those free-culture-aware outlets in our own little community. The reality is once you ditch both baby and bathwater, you don't have much. Advocating for Freedom is one thing, but a small community shunning most formats isn't going to change many hearts and minds.

So restricted formats appears to be a fact of life, however lamentable that fact may be.

And just like RPM Fusion makes Fedora usable on the desktop for people who work with or enjoy multimedia, Debian Multimedia does the same for Debian proper.

I find Debian Multimedia to be an essential piece of my Debian pie, and I like the freedom to use Debian instead of a codec-rich, less Debian-ist derivative project. Yes, I'm picking and choosing what parts of the Debian philosophy to which I wish to adhere. That's my freedom.

Call it what you will. But I want it. And need it. And I expect many of you do, too.