Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Publish And View Online Video Using Free Software: A Present To Richard Stallman

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Publishing and viewing online video is an incredibly simple prospect these days, and the hardest part of it is choosing which of the many video sharing services to use. However, if you are hoping to use free software - free as in freedom, in the GNU, Richard Stallman sense of the word - it isn't always quite so simple. A great many of the online video sharing websites use proprietary formats, with Adobe's Flash video being the most popular. So what can you do if you want to publish and watch online video without betraying your commitment to the free software cause?

Photo credit: Aurelio A. Heckert and Tina Rencelj

If you're willing to dig around there are a surprising number of alternatives to proprietary-based services like YouTube and Google video. Some involve cunning hacks cooked up by the GNU / Free Software community, while others are as simple as making use of existing web platforms that make things easy for Free Software supporters to avoid buying into the proprietary system. In this guide I show you the growing number of alternatives, demonstrating along the way that it is perfectly possible to watch, publish and share video from a GNU / Free Software environment.

In this short (and by no means conclusive) guide I talk you through:

  • What Free Software is and why you might want to consider using it in your video sharing activities
  • How to publish your online video in Free Software friendly environments and formats
  • How to watch online video - even video that starts out in a proprietary format - using Free Software

This is our Master New Media gift to Richard Stallman, who inspired the Robin Good team to come up with viable alternatives to YouTube in his ongoing, open discussion with Robin Good. So sit back, relax and feel safe in the knowledge that online video can be free in every sense of the word - not just free as in beer, but free as in freedom.

Why use Free Software for your videos?

Word from the source

What exactly is Free Software, and why would you want to use it rather than the proprietary alternatives? Free Software, in the words of its chief spokesman Richard Stallman is based on not one, but four kinds of freedom:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Source: Richard Stallman, The Free Software Definition

Photo credit: Chrys

Here is a philosophy diametrically opposed to the proprietary model of software distribution, as perhaps best exemplified by the Microsoft corporation's business model. Wikipedia defines proprietary thus:

''Proprietary indicates that a party, or proprietor, exercises private ownership, control or use over an item of property, usually to the exclusion of other parties.

A party may have interests which are similar to proprietary interests in relation to certain types of information (e.g. a creative literary work, or software), which is the subject of certain laws, such as copyright, patents or trademarks. One such way in which this manner is speech is often used is in reference to proprietary software.''

In short, Free Software is very much about making software available to all, rather than keeping it as the exclusive property of the few. A fuller, more comprehensive explanation about Free Software and its benefits was given by Richard Stallman in his interview with Robin Good.

In terms of its relevance to online video, Free Software formats such as Ogg Theora provide an open, freely shareable alternative to closed, proprietary formats such as the popular Flash Video format featured on sites including YouTube and Google Video. As such, it is possible for any person, using any operating system, to have access to these free files, while this is not the case with their proprietary counterparts.

Control over your content

But there are other reasons besides to consider including Free Software formats in your video publishing activities. Chief among them is the fact that large corporate video sharing websites like YouTube feature often unpleasant, ambiguous terms of service for those uploading files to their servers.


Among others, Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin reported on the troubling issues surrounding sharing your video through YouTube. She notes that:

''YouTube's "new" Terms & Conditions allow them to sell whatever you uploaded however they want:

" submitting the User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successor's) business... in any media formats and through any media channels."

Among other things, this means they could strip the audio portion of any track and sell it on a CD. Or, they could sell your video to an ad firm looking to get "edgy"; suddenly your indie reggae tune could be the soundtrack to a new ad for SUVs. The sky's still the limit, when it comes to the rights you surrender to YouTube when you upload your video.''

With terms of service like these it really is worth thinking twice before uploading your video to this proprietary, mega-corporate hosting service. Sure, they have more videos and viewers than anyone else, but the price could be your freedom, and control over your content.

Thankfully, there are alternatives, and I take a look at these safer, freer options in the publishing section of this article.

Caring, sharing video

There is another reason even better than the first two to include Free Software solutions in your video publishing strategy, however. And that is the fact that vast parts of the world are switching in droves to the GNU / Linux platform, and away from the proprietary Windows (and Mac OS) alternatives. Whether you would care to join them or not, it is now irrefutable that an increasing amount of your online viewers are going to be checking out your videos from a Free Software environment, and this number is growing exponentially.

GNU / Linux is getting a lot easier to use,with friendly distributions like Ubuntu helping to ease the stress of switching. More and more people are becoming convinced that they can do without Windows, and get by nicely using a GNU / Linux machine.

But it isn't just individuals.


Governments and entire countries are starting to see the advantages of using Free Software. Most famously, Brazil has seen a huge switch taking place, as Todd Benson of The New York Times notes:

''Since taking office two years ago, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has turned Brazil into a tropical outpost of the free software movement.

Looking to save millions of dollars in royalties and licensing fees, Mr. da Silva has instructed government ministries and state-run companies to gradually switch from costly operating systems made by Microsoft and others to free operating systems, like Linux.

On Mr. da Silva's watch, Brazil has also become the first country to require any company or research institute that receives government financing to develop software to license it as open-source, meaning the underlying software code must be free to all.''

Entire generations are growing up with Free Software, and the governments of developed and developing nations alike continue to show interest in making the switch. With Brazil showing what is truly possible it is fair to say that online video that does not take Free Software users into account is rapidly going to lose out to online video that does. It is a simple matter of logistics.

To secure yourself a strong audience base, it would make sense to be mindful of these changes. Providing Free Software alternatives to proprietary formats is going to become a necessity in the coming years - why not get ahead of the game and enhance your video sharing potential now? Here a good couple of ways you can do that right away:

Publishing Free Software Style



Now supposing you decide that you want to take advantage of YouTube's popularity and market penetration to reach the maximum number of viewers. That doesn't mean that you can't also provide additional downloadable video in a Free Software format, alongside your embedded YouTube video. This is a very simple procedure, and involves:

  • Transcoding your original video content into a Free Software format such as Ogg Theora. You can do this with desktop tools such as ffmpeg2theora and MEncoder or using online tools such as Hey! Watch and Zamzar. There are more details on both approaches in the Watching video with Free Software section below.
  • Uploading your file to the Internet, either using your own web hosting, or one of the several free hosting services that allow you direct access to the file. Options here include Blip.TV, OurMedia and
  • Taking the URL path of your video file, and embedding it as a link in your blog post or website. To do this you simply take the URL of your file location - for example - and turn this into a link, using either your blog editor, or the appropriate HTML code.

This is one, straightforward approach to supplying a downloadable alternative format to your site visitors. It isn't the most elegant solution, but it does at least account for those users unable or unwilling to watch YouTube video.

Publishing and sharing


It can all be a lot simpler than that, however thanks to the relatively recent inclusion of the Ogg Theora format to video sharing website Blip.TV.

Blip had always expressed their interest in becoming a more open platform than YouTube and its clones. Their website reads that: ''We're five friends in New York City who believe in open media and all those nice buzzwords'', and until they were called on this point, I'm sure they thought that to be the case.

However, The Inquirer's Fernando Cassia decided to challenge this point, given that they were using closed, proprietary formats (FLV WMV and Quicktime). In quick response, and to their credit, the Blip.TV team added the open, Free Software Ogg Theora format to their line up.

It is now possible, then, to upload your Ogg Theora videos to Blip.TV, which is great news. Just like YouTube, Blip.TV allows you to embed videos into any website. The big difference is that now anyone can watch them, even if they are using only Free Software.

Add to this the fact that Blip.TV allows you to choose from a vast range of licenses for your work, giving you greater control of your content, and suddenly Blip comes out as a very forward thinking player in the field of online video sharing.

If for whatever reason you decide that you don't get along with Blip.TV, you do have two more options available to you, however. Both OurMedia and also support the Ogg format, although I find neither as flexible or user-friendly as Blip.TV.

And there's yet more, because the excellent Democracy platform offers you not only a total video viewing experience (as detailed below), but also a free, GPL-licensed means of broadcasting your video content to the world.


As detailed on the Democracy website there are actually four ways you can use this Free Software Internet TV platform to reach a wide audience through RSS syndication. They are:

  1. Via Blip.TV, who have partnered with Democracy to make sharing your video content even easier, by allowing users to subscribe to your 'channel' and watch your videos in the free Democracy player.
  2. Using Democracy's free, open-source Broadcast machine software, which allows you to quickly create your own Internet TV channels directly on your own website
  3. Via Democracy's VideoBomb video ratings community, from which users can create channels from their favourite online videos
  4. On your own website, using your own CMS, on which each user can be given their own channel

Democracy is a growing, constantly evolving Internet TV platform and I found it a pleasure to use in my recent review of the service. Further details on its capacity as a player can be found below, in the Watching video using Free Software section. Democracy's strong foundations in the Free Software movement make it a truly open platform, and one that makes it very easy to both publish and watch online video without the shackles of proprietary software.

Watching video using Free Software

Downloading and watching


One easy way you can watch online video in a Free Software environment is by using a simple combination of the excellent, cross-platform media player VLC and one of several browser-based video downloading services. These services include:

  • Video Downloader, which will grab video from most video sharing websites. All you have to do is enter the URL of the video, click on download, and then accept the video file that will be saved to your computer's hard drive
  • VideoDL, which does the same job as Video Downloader
  • KeepVid is another popular alternative using the same system
  • VideoDownloader is a Firefox Add-On that will let you grab videos without even having to visit a seperate website. If you are using the Firefox browser, and have this installed, it is a simple matter of clicking on a download icon to instantly grab any video file currently in your browser window

Once you have that file, which occasionally needs the "flv" file extension adding manually, you are ready to play it using Free Software like VLC or MPlayer, both of which are cross-platform and GPL-licensed. Open your file, and away you go.

Converting your way free


If you do have any problems playing those FLV files, or prefer to completely distance yourself from the proprietary format, there are still options available to you. To take your freedom to the next level, you might want to convert those FLVs into an open, free format like Ogg Theora, and this is a relatively straight forward procedure. One option would be to make the switch right from your desktop, using applications such as FFmpeg or ffmpeg2theora, but let it be said that neither are an absolute pleasure to use. There is, thankfully, a much easier solution.

The online encoding solutions Hey! Watch (recently reviewed by on these very pages) and ZamZar will both allow you to upload your file and convert it into several formats, including the free, open Ogg Theora of course. Once you have your new Free Software video, you can watch it in VLC or Mplayer straight away.

While Zamzar is completely free, and Hey! Watch free only up to a point (with a lot of extended features and capabilities for paying customers), Hey! Watch does feature one major advantage that will speed up the whole process for you - it lets you grab videos from any website, and encodes them all from its interface. This effectively saves you the downloading and re-uploading process required of Zamzar, meaning that you can grab your video directly from YouTube (for instance), encode it from the same interface, and then directly download the file in Ogg Theora format.

An even easier way


There is an even easier way, however. The GPL-licensed total video solution known as Democracy gives you the power to download and watch videos direct from video publishers, from the major video sharing sites (yes, YouTube included), and even using the increasingly popular Bit Torrent client. In my complete review of the platform I found Democracy to be a gateway to the entire universe of online video, and one that will work on a Mac, a Windows box or GNU / Linux.

Democracy is constantly being improved, and it is sometimes hard to keep up with the changes made to upgrade and adapt the platform. This shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise, given that the code for the platform is GPL / open source, and thus available for its users to add to and improve the project as it comes of age.

The Democracy video player is based on the popular free, open media player VLC and as such, will play just about any video file you'd care to throw at it, in all but the most obscure of codecs.

Watching online video is as simple as executing a search of the major video sharing sites, or having a look through the platform's extensive channel guide, at which point you can download the requisite files to your hard drive, and watch them (in full screen if you wish) from the comfort of your Free Software safe haven. You can download Democracy without paying a penny, and I highly recommend your doing so.

Thanks to Valentin Spirik for bringing this solution to the Free Software video issue to my attention.


It is indeed possible to share, watch and publish online video using only Free Software solutions, and as I have demonstrated there are a number of options available for doing so. What this means is that users can both view and share their online videos regardless of the operating system and computer they access the Internet with.

While YouTube seems like the natural first choice for sharing your video files, it is worth bearing in mind that it uses a proprietary video format that will ultimately prevent at least a small segment of your potential audience from being able to view your content. Furthermore, when you upload your videos to services like YouTube you are subject to nebulous terms of service that could mean that you are unintentionally handing over all kinds of content ownership and distribution rights to your host.

There are alternatives, however, that will allow everyone to access your video online, regardless of whether they are using free or proprietary software. Blip.TV, OurMedia, and Democracy player are leading the way in showing that it is possible to include Free Software solutions without limiting your distribution to a choice few.

Whether or not you personally choose to use proprietary software is ultimately your decision. However, given that it is now possible to publish your work using free, open formats such as Ogg Theora, supplying a Free Software option may very well extend your audience to the growing number of GNU / Linux converts looking to connect with your content.

In this short guide I have demonstrated how you can:

  • Watch any online video using Free Software, regardless of whether it is in a proprietary or free format
  • Easily encode your video into open, free video formats such as Ogg Theora
  • Publish your work using video sharing platforms that support both Free Software video formats and the ability to choose from a range of licenses for your work, giving you greater control over your content

Free Software video puts the sharing back into online video sharing, ultimately extending the reach of your videos to anyone that would like to watch them, rather than simply to those running the appropriate proprietary software. By using one of the recommended services above, you may well extend your audience, and safeguard your work from being used inappropriately into the bargain.

That for me is well worth a shot.

Additional resources

If you would like to learn more about Free Software and how you can watch and publish online video using Free Software, you might want to check out the following links:

Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media as:
Publish And View Online Video Using Free Software

Readers' Comments    
2007-05-21 07:48:49


Just a message to inform you about my theora player ITheora, based on the java applet Cortado
but not only… you can get the entire description there : It works with videos from (it simply means that picture at the start from blip is automatically loaded)

(I’m french so, sorry for my english…)

posted by Michael Pick on Thursday, March 1 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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