Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, February 8, 2007

No More Stallman On YouTube? Open-Source Evangelist Says No To The Use Of Proprietary Video Formats

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This article should really be titled "No More Stallman On YouTube? Free Software Evangelist Says No To The Use Of Proprietary Video Formats" as Richard Stallman is NOT an evangelist for open-source, but of Free Software, from which open-source movement later emerged. The key difference between the two is that for the Open Source movement, the issues at stake are ones of a more commercial vision focused on stressing its economic efficiency and functional effectiveness in the marketplace, while the free software movement and Richard Stallman regard these issues strictly from an ethical viewpoint which focuses on individual basic freedom rights.

Richard Stallman, the guru of free software, has taken a deliberate stance to favour and support in all ways possible the use of free software also when it comes to publishing his video interviews.

In other words, Stallman wants YouTube or other video sharing sites not to publish video clips of his interviews or lectures as these video distribution services do not utilize video software and file formats that adhere to the Free Software Foundation principles.

Richard Stallman - Photo credit: Robin Good

While I am fundamentally a supporter of Richard Stallman's views on free software and democracy, I am also an independent reporter trying to spread and divulge his ideas, concepts and plans, which nonetheless his huge popularity are still completely unknown to the greater part of my readers.

But the moment the prince of liberties and open democracy imposes on me a prohibition to publish his own views and ideas in a format that, in my humble opinion, could reach 10000 times more people than going for the (yet) unknown, alpha-stage, and little supported video format he would want me to use, I feel that the genuine principles of free software and media democracy heralded by Stallman himself may be at risk. Religious advocacy of anything is in my personal view not good for anyone wishing to spread his message in a friendly and non-totalitarian fashion.

Here are the details of this ironic saga between the evangelist of free software and a person wanting to defend the rights of small indpendent publishers.

Not all his lost... and be prepared for a good ending anyway.

To summarize this story in a way that can be easily understood, let me briefly summarize what went on until now.

Richard Stallman was recently in Rome, and I was lucky enough to host him for a couple of nights in my home. I took him to work places and meeting he had with my motorbike and played host and humble supporter as best as I could.

Before Stallman actually arrived here, I had asked him through our common contact, whether he would have been available for a video interview once we would have met. The reply was a positive one and so the night before his departure to his next destination, I gently asked him for approval to shoot a brief video interview. He consented to it with no resistance and I recorded some valuable material about free software, open-source, social change and democracy which I have already published online.

I should note that at the end of the shooting, our common friend, Rufo Guerreschi, said to Richard something like: "....great, so we will see you soon on YouTube". When Richard heard that statement he immediately erupted: "Do not publish my videos on YouTube, because YouTube doesn't use free software."

I chose right there and then not to reply or to argue with Richard's request, as I thought of alternative possibilities that would have been in line with his request, while wondering in my head whether he really did have a right to impose on me such restrictions bartering them with my honest desire to simply publish and popularize his own ideas on video.

Stallman, departed the next morning and I started to prepare the article and video clips to be included in it. As you can imagine I didn't find an alternative video sharing site like YouTube which allowed me to easily host, annotate and stream to any computer platform his videos. Since, as you will read in a second, Richard's suggested alternative to YouTube was (and is) to use a free video file format that

a) forces me to host the files on my own server and

b) forces me to bear all bandwidth costs for delivering such video content

c) does not allow my readers to click and view the video clips (streaming) but it

d) requires me to hand over the files to my technical contact as only on a Linux machine I have found a way to convert .avi files to ogg theora, the free video file format Richard Stallman wants me to use,

d) forces my readers to first download each video file individually

e) forces my readers to download a dedicated video player (VLC) to be able to view those clips, I decided to take the issue head-on and, after having verified that there was already a very significant number of public videos of Richard Stallman on both YouTube and Google Video, I proceeded in uploading without feeling guilty my clips to YouTube.

After I posted the interview and notified Richard Stallman of it, this is what he wrote back to me:

"When you quoted what I said at the end of the interview, you changed the words in a way that altered the meaning. I did not say:

"...and do not post it to YouTube, as it doesn't use free software!"

What I said was this:

"...and do not post it to YouTube, as it doesn't work with free software!"

Perhaps I should have said more, to make the distinction clear.

I do not know what software runs on the YouTube site, but that is not the really important issue. I am concerned with what software users can use to access it.

At present, users need non-free software to view any videos on YouTube. Anyone who wants to see videos on YouTube is effectively forced to install non-free software.

That is very bad!

Much worse than merely running some non-free software on their server (which perhaps they also do).

Posting these video clips on YouTube has, in effect, perverted my own interview into encouragement for proprietary software!

Please correct the quotation in my interview, and please remove those video clips from YouTube.

Please post them in a way that works with free software, or not at all."


That really blew me off.

First I didn't appreciate much Richard's asking me to correct what I had personally recorded as his own words. In the overall discourse this doesn't change much the issue now, but it is only fair for me to recount that as I had taken a written note on my Moleskine of what Richard had said right after the interview, I knew from my very notes what he had said.

So, while I didn't rush to correct my quote (which I later did, to show at least good will and respect) but headed rather toward finding a tool or service that would satisfy Richard Stallman's request (as he hadn't suggested any).

Ogg Theora

By exchanging a few emails with Arturo Di Corinto, an estimated supporter, writer and evangelist of free-software here in Italy, (and a publisher himself of video interviews with Stallman reachable on YouTube), I learned of the existence of a "free" video file format: Ogg Theora.

"Theora is an open video codec being developed by the Foundation as part of their Ogg project (It is a project that aims to integrate On2's VP3 video codec, Ogg Vorbis audio codec and Ogg multimedia container formats into a multimedia solution that can compete with MPEG-4 format).

Theora (and all associated technologies released by the Foundation) is released to the public via a BSD-style license. It is completely free for commercial or noncommercial use. That means that commercial developers may independently write Theora software which is compatible with the specification for no charge and without restrictions of any kind.

Yes, some portions of the VP3 codec are covered by patents. However, the Foundation has negotiated an irrevocable free license to the VP3 codec for any purpose imaginable on behalf of the public. It is legal to use VP3 in any way you see fit (unless, of course, you're doing something illegal with it in your particular jurisdiction). You are free to download VP3, use it free of charge, implement it in a for-sale product, implement it in a free product, make changes to the source and distribute those changes, or print the source code out and wallpaper your spare room with it."

Theora is also still in "Alpha" stage (a very early stage of development for a new software) and to convert standard video files into it you need to look at ogg-theora-microhowto and transcode quicktime mov files to Theora files under Linux. Alternatively you can use libogg, to wrap theora video with vorbis audio in Ogg file. A last alternative to convert .dv and .avi format video into Ogg Theora format is with ffmpeg2theora. It can be found at:"

So, unless I have myself a Linux machine I cannot even transcode my video clips into the Theora format!

The only media players that currently support Theora are not exactly what you would call popular ones. They include: Mplayer, Xine, Helix player and VideoLAN. Directshow filters are also available for use on Windows platform and RealPlayer, once properly set up may also be able to play these files.

Overall, the format is very young and unsupported, not very popular at all, no video hosting service supports it, it does not allow me to easily publish it in a way that can stream in one-click to my readers and it requires users to download a dedicated video player to see video clips saved in this format.

Nonetheless the above, I decided to go forward and find some extra help to convert my Stallman's video clips into this format. My webmaster in Croatia uses a Linux box and it wasn't too difficult for him to convert my master files into Theora.

I then uploaded the Ogg Theora files to my server and provided links to download them next to the YouTube video versions inside my interview article, specifying in parentheses that the Theora files were indeed in a free format.

Stallman insistence

But once I notified Richard Stallman of my desire to proceed in converting and uploading also the Ogg Theora video files he wrote back:

"Yes, that is the right solution.

In the mean time, please delete the clips from YouTube. They were never supposed to be posted on YouTube."

I felt bad again, immediately. I understood the man had ideals and principles that went beyond my interest to inform and share rare to find information.

I did not want to take orders from him nor wanted to give up on my original reporting goals. I also felt very bad about such ideals preventing other simple people like me from being exposed to Stallman's own ideas. I thought that really sucked.

So, while I felt I was very open to write about alternative ways to post video online using free software or ways for individuals to watch YouTube video clips without using proprietary software, I didn't feel obliged to remove the YouTube versions, (especially when so many others Stallman's clips are already available there) as they, in my reporter's view, were the only effective way to spread Stallman message around.

I left the YouTube video clips up, added the Ogg Theora free versions next to them and left it at that.

My stance on Theora and free software

a) I like and support Richard Stallman view on free software and am committed to provide more exposure and visibility to both his ideas and initiatives so that a greater number of people can find out what free software is really about and start to take control back in their hands.

b) I will not ever ask or invite individuals to buy into the idea of free software with blinding religious faith and without giving them option to first learn, wet and expose themselves to this new way of working with information technologies.

c) I will not publish videos of Richard Stallman in a fully free video format until this one proves to be an effective alternative to the features and accessibility offered by the YouTube-like proprietary approach. Once Theora is supported, and there are services that host its files and that allow me to easily embed and stream a Theora video file from within my site I will be more than happy to post my video interviews into this format exclusively.

For me, doing away with immediate, direct streaming of video clips which is possible with YouTube and similar video sharing sites is a major setback. My readers do not want to download a clip, and a dedicated video player to check whether a video clip has in it what they are interested in watching. Once Ogg Theora will be embeddable and immediately streamable on any web page, I will be able to embrace Richard Stallman on the front line without hesitation.

d) If Stallman's mission is one of identifying reference points and sticking to them as hard as he can, mine is one of letting other discover, question, test, verify and then eventually adopt.

e) Pretending that individuals must adopt a badly supported file format that cannot be used for direct video streaming as others do, is effectively equivalent to pretending that new, potentially interested followers of the open-source mantra have to take a religious, faith-based approach.

f) As I have found out, thanks to the excellent research work done by executive editor Michael Pick, there are indeed multiple ways to watch YouTube clips without having to use proprietary software. If this are properly promoted and given access to next to YouTube videos I really don't see anymore what the issue is.

f) I also want (though I don't know if I can also legally pretend) to have the freedom to use the media I want to report my stories. Being restricted into using one specific file format seems to me an excessive pretense.


As I still have on hold a few extra clips from the video interview I conducted with Richard Stallman that night, which focus on the issue of DRM, I decided a few days ago to write again to Richard and insist in the most gentle and educated way to ask him allowance for publishing these along with the Theora versions.

Here the transcript from our exchange:

"Dear Richard,

I am writing to you as I would like to publish further video material captured during our Roman meeting (which in the meanwhile I have also transcribed into text in English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.)

My kind plea is for allowing me to publish next to the free and open Ogg/Theora files an immediately streamable version of the same hosted on one of the public services out there.

This would allow my readers that do not yet know about the implications of using true open formats to still benefit from the opportunity to hear your very own explanations without needing to first download the files, an appropriate video player such as VLC and only then be able to see the video content published.

While I perfectly understand and respect your desire to promote all the open format alternatives out there, my first responsibility is the one of informing people and guide them to ask themselves more questions.

In this effort, the ability for them to be able to immediately hear from your own voice your point of view on DRM or the other topics we have talked about would be very beneficial and in my humble view, would further help the cause of making them aware of things that they presently ignore.

I would sincerely hope that also in the face of the extensive quantity of video interviews of you already posted by others on YouTube and Google Video you will not choose to limit or restrict my sincere effort to promote and give extra visibility to your viewpoints through my own online publications.

I look forward to a positive feedback from you,

Robin Good"

And here his prompt reply and the exchange that ensued from it:

"We are starting a campaign to write to the people who have posted videos of mine on those sites, to ask them to add notes explaining that these sites are hostile to free software.

Just because one problem exists is not a reason to want another!"

Robin to Richard Stallman

"Dear Richard,
I read no clear and unambiguous reply in your email back.

If this reply means: No, you cannot post your videos online, I would like to be so kind at least to write back in clear words why this is the reason, as I have offered both support for the open formats as well as for the explanation to the readers of the differences of these different formats can mean to them, and which are the rules that you are setting for others like me to respect... I kindly request that you spell out in clear terms the reasons and motifs for this and what is the "approved" procedure and format to publish videos of yourself online.

I would also like to know how do you intend to fight those that have and will not comply .

I look forward to your prompt and kind feedback,


Richard Stallman to Robin

"I have concluded, in the past few months, that I should do more to promote Ogg Theora format than I used to do.

It should be possible here, and that is what I want to do.

This is not a precise, rigid rule.

It is not always proper to formulate a rigid rule for every decision."

Wise words, I say.


Happy ending?

I don't know. But I think it is.

What I know, is:

1) that I will proceed in publishing Richard Stallman video interview on DRM in the coming days, while providing dedicated information next to each on how to watch YouTube clips without using proprietary software.

2) that there is a great opportunity for anyone of the many video sharing sites out there to characterize themselves in a meaningful way, and to get all of the attention and support from the free software, open-source and anti-DRM communities out there.
For the rest, I would prefer reading your own unrestricted comments and views on this very issue.

Update - Monday February 12th 2007

In response to this very article Richard Stallman wrote yesterday:

"The basic idea of the free software movement is that users deserve freedom; that non-free software, since it denies the users freedom, is unethical. It would be self-contradictory for me to communicate these views to the public by asking them to first install a non-free program.

That is why I don't want my videos to be posted on YouTube.

If I were in favor of open source, I would presumably have no ethical objection to use of the non-free Flash player, and therefore I would be glad to use YouTube.


The information I have is that YouTube cannot be viewed with free software.

You have heard that there is a method that works; perhaps it is true. However, I don't know Michael Pick, and in particular I don't know how thoroughly he would have checked that the software he
used was free. Thus, I cannot rely on his statement alone. But if you show me the method, I will ask people to verify that it works and that it doesn't use non-free software. If it does, and is reasonably
feasible to recommend to users, that could change my view about YouTube.

My (Robin Good) reply is here:

Dear Richard,
a first reference on how you could watch any YouTube video while using free software is right here: Download YouTube videos the Linux way!

In the above article, Arun a19-year undergraduate engineering student from India provides full instructions for downloading and watching YouTube video clips by using free software.

Not only.

Arun also explains how to convert such YouTube-based video clips to other formats if watching .flv clips (Flash-video encoded) with free software is your end goal.

The solutions he offers are both browser-based and command-line-based for the more technically oriented among you.

Here some of the basics (see Arun's article for the full details)

"Getting the Video

1. Online Tools

2. There are some sites like which allow users to input a YouTube link and they would give you the download link. So get the download link from this site and download the flv file.

3. Firefox Plugin
There is a firefox extension which allows you to download YouTube videos as you watch them. I haven't tried this.

4. Command Line Tools
This is the safest and best way (for CLI junkies :-D). Download the script YouTube-dl (thanks to Ricardo Garcia Gonzalez for this nice script). Just put that script in your ~/bin or /usr/bin directories or somewhere in the application path.To download the flv video do this :
e.g : youtube-dl

Playing the video

1. Use VLC Player or MPlayer or Kaffeine to play the Flash video files.

2. If the above method doesn't work out (It din't in my case)..Then go the difficult way :
* Get ffmpeg for your system. SuSE users can get it here.
* Convert the flv video to avi (or any other format) using ffmpeg :
ffmpeg -i my_flash_video.flv the_avi_file.avi
* Now drag and drop the avi file into your favorite video player n watch the video.

(It is curious to note how even a geek like Arun comments himself below his own instructions that this is really not a compelling way to see a video - "Still unsatisfied ?! "Dude I'm a *nix user. I can't sit and do all these steps to get a simple video playing !!" - and offers himself to write an automated script to do so.)

Other solutions

1) Zamzar will output OGG Theora, and do so entirely from your browser, which is easy as can be. Zamzar is a web-based file conversion service that you can freely use.

2) VLC, MPlayer and Kaffeine will play flvs (Flash video files) in their latest updates, while they already handle OGG Theora and other open formats. So - quickest way would be grab a video from YouTube with any browser-based flv downloader and then watch it in VLC or mplayer.

If you were to run into problems you could further convert the flv file using either FFMPEG or Zamzar.

3) Wait a few weeks and enjoy the automated web-based video conversion option, allowing encoding into Ogg Theora from any other video file format (!) that Hey!Watch will soon release. Yes indeed. Bruno Celeste and the other great guys at Hey!Watch have immediately taken up my call for taking up this opportunity and they are already working on integrating the necessary extra conversion modules that this requires. Hey!Watch is a web-based video conversion and encoding service which can also grab videos directly from most video sharing sites without requiring you first to download the video to your computer, and it will be soon the first web-based service that will provide the automated means to grab any web or disk-based video clip you have and convert it for you to open format Ogg Theora, for free viewing on any compatible video player.

(Thanks to Michael Pick for some of the technical research work).

If you let it, you may see too, a happy ending title rising over the horizon.

My insistence on not taking orders from Richard Stallman, and taking position on my freedom to select the media I want to publish to, has resulted in:

a) great free exposure of the Ogg Theora open format,

b) sharing of way and approaches that can be used now to watch web video clips with free software,

c) a French private company who is spending time and resources to make it easier for everyone to convert video files to Ogg Theora

Disclosure.: I have omitted certain passages from Richard's email because they do not relate to the YouTube issue. Richard Stallman asks me in these to change the title of the article, because he rightly complains not to be an "open-source evangelist", and to refer to Linux, which I mention in the article several times as GNU/Linux.

My position on these other issues is that I am a free reporter trying to communicate to a non-geek, non-technical audience concepts and issues they are little or no aware about yet. The term "free software" in particular has strong ambiguous connotations that cannot be easily explained in a title, and this is why I have chosen to use the title I have chosen. If I were to speak to someone I know, in real-life, I would not make such distinctions between open-source and free software on first-encounters, because my counterpart may misunderstand what I am really talking about. Once we are on the same wavelength, I can then further explain and specify that Free Software is the father of open-source and that there differences between the two.

If you are interested in understanding more about the differences between Open-Source and Free Software check out these:

On the issue of GNU/Linux, I respect Richard's will, and since I am not here to make his life more difficult, I will use the term GNU/Linux in future articles where he is involved.

Update - Thu Feb 15th 2007:

Here is another great solution from Peter Rock in Africa which allows anyone to watch YouTube video clips with free software:
Watch YouTube in freedom
which suggests to use free tool Keepvid to download YouTube clips to your computer as .FLVs and then to watch them with the free MPlayer or VLC video players.

Update - Thu Feb 20th 2007:

Hey!Watch now offers to all of its users encoding into the open Ogg Theora video format. Though there are some known limitations (Windows Media WMV3 and On2VP6 not supported in input).

I have tested the new encoding facility and it works flawlessly.

Readers' Comments    
2007-09-20 22:32:30


interesting thread, you might want to check out this research report on the possibilities of free software video codecs
and also check out this free software platform for creating video sharing sites

2007-04-18 23:44:21


He asks you not to post to youtube but you do, because in truth, you are contemptuous of what his request stands for.

In your mind it is reasonable for linux/bsd users to download and install programs and then download the files to view them, or not be able to view them at all. But you are outraged that Microsoft users might be somehow be inconvenienced if you follow your interviewees stated criteria for use, and NOT POST HIS INTERVIEW ON YOUTUBE, and you insult him for it.

2007-03-07 19:19:37


If I may make a concrete suggestion, as someone who has filmed and interviewed Mr. Stallman, and is a supporter of Free Software.

I used the following command line last June (on a Mac, but it could just as well have been a GNU/Linux PC) to transcode from DV to Ogg Theora:

./ffmpeg2theora /Volumes/Medias/Barcelona/GPL3Barcelona_rms.dv -x 352 -y 288 -v 2 -S 0 -K 128 -c 1 -H 32000 –artist ‘Richard M. Stallman’ –title ‘Overview of GPL v3 Changes’ -date ‘June 22, 2006′ –location ‘Third International GPLv3 Conference, Barcelona’ –organization ‘Free Software Foundation Europe (’ –copyright ‘(c) 2006 Free Software Foundation Europe’ –license ‘Verbatim copying and distribution of this video or any portion thereof is permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice, and the copyright notice, are preserved.’ -o /Volumes/Medias/Barcelona/GPL3Barcelona_rms.theora.ogg

2007-02-12 16:45:22


the easiest way to watch youtube with free software i know of:

• download democracy player:

• and subscribe to a user's rss feed.

this works just like with podcasts in itunes...

for more about this see also

in our p2p foundation a/v wiki.

2007-02-09 16:06:51



Thx for this fascinating behind the scenes look at dealing with Stallman, who clearly practices what he preaches -- in extremis. Also, congrats on the latest Alexa data.

2007-02-09 13:09:15



Let me get this straight, you did an interview with RMS because you support free software and want to tell other people about it. But then you complain that the very thing you are trying to enlighten people to is a bit of a pain, so you choose to abandon it? Yeah, that sends the right message.

Though I am coming to expect such things from journalists.

2007-02-09 07:25:03


This post has nothing to do with drm and everything to do with why I'm tired of computers. People have become so absorbed by them that they can't even communicate effectively, which is the real story here. This reads more like another boring rant by someone who's involved in a stupid e-mail exchange over something that is not important to anyone else.

2007-02-09 07:11:46

Peter Rock

I suggest you change the title to "Free Software Evangelist...". RMS is not an open source evangelist. He is not against open source, but sees clearly that the term was formulated in order to mask any talk of freedom and push free free software into corporate sectors.

2007-02-08 18:59:29


"So, unless I have myself a Linux machine I cannot even transcode my video clips into the Theora format!"

while i agree that one should not make a religion out of (free) software, it is not true that you need a linux machine to encode to ogg theora:

1) download/install ffmpeg2theora

2) (for os x)

• open terminal app (in "utilities")

• and follow the instructions given on this page:

and the vlc by the way is a tool i recommend to anyone - it is simply the best media player (also on the mac). i also noticed that windows users often have problems watching my own mpeg-4/h.264 encoded videos - the vlc just works...

2007-02-08 16:33:44

Mark Blafkin

This is a really fascinating and instructive post about Richard Stallman. As I've written back on the...

2007-02-08 10:54:47


I've shot Stallman before now, and found his request to be posted only in 'free' formats quite reasonable, given the content of his talks. He argues forcefully that each and every compromise to propietary software amounts to selling the future of mankind down the tubes. To then cast that argument via such software must either be facile or hypocrisy. It's disingenuous and disrespectful given his specific request to refrain from doing so. ffmpeg2theora works perfectly well on PC's. 'Super' is a convenient GUI front end. VLC will stream theora fine if one pastes in the link. Anyone capable of comprehending Stallman, is capable of that.


posted by Robin Good on Thursday, February 8 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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