In Praise of VLC

I tell everyone I know to use VLC if they are looking to play videos on a computer. It’s quite simply one of the best and most useful computer applications available.

Playing videos on a computer hasn’t been novel for about 20 years, but playing the videos you want is still oddly difficult in 2012. The video players included with Windows and Mac OS play a sharply limited number of video formats due to crippling licensing restrictions — to include the ability to play or create videos in, say, h.264 format, Microsoft and Apple have to pay royalties to the people who hold the patents on its codec technology. This has created a somewhat embarrassing gap in the capabilities of the two major operating systems: out of the box, Windows 7 and Mac OS X Lion can’t play some of the most popular video codecs in the world. (The next version of Windows, due later this year, won’t even support DVD playback. Luckily, VLC does that too.)

VLC’s success is, in a way, a powerful expression of the strangeness of software patents. The app uses open-source video playback and encoding libraries, which may well be in violation of quite a few software patents, but their volunteer creators profess (likely feigned) ignorance on the subject and can point to years of undisturbed operation as evidence that it doesn’t really matter — as long as you don’t charge for your software. VLC’s legal status is best described, I think, as fine enough.

Actually, VLC gets away with patent license issues because they are based in France and French law does not recognize software as being patentable. By that logic, patent licenses aren’t applicable under French law. Doesn’t make what they do right, but nobody really seems to care all that much.

Trust me on this: VLC is absolutely necessary for playing video if you own a computer. It’s free so go get it.

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