Netflix completes the open source giving cycle

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Netflix gets it. They understand the power of open source.

Kevin McEntee, VP of Systems & ECommerce Engineering at Netflix wrote a blog post about how Netflix does more than just consume open source. McEntee highlights three key components of the open source way that typically equate to success. He doesn't refer to them this clearly, but the three components he's really talking about are:

  • Open standards enable more participation and adoption
  • Participation in communities of purpose has more meaning when you give back
  • Contributing to open source projects and sharing knowledge completes the cycle

In his post, "Why we use and contribute to open source software," McEntee talks about the decision to use open source and open standards:

"...there is often the alternative choice of utilizing open source software, preferably open source software that implements an open standard. Open source software projects often originate as a labor of love by software developers who are tired of seeing a shared problem solved over and over again in one off solutions, or perhaps they realize that they can offer a more simple and elegant alternative to a commercial product."

In the rest of the post, McEntee outlines some of the open source projects that Netflix both consumes and contributes back to. Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst often talks about completing the cycle by encouraging customers to contribute to open source, the power of participation, and being a catalyst in communities. Whether Netflix qualifies as a catalyst in the open source communities they contribute to is an open question, but the fact that they actually give back is a big step that other companies often neglect to take.

"By sharing our bug fixes and new features back out into the community, the community then in turn continues to improve upon bug fixes and new features that originated at Netflix and then we complete the cycle by bring those improvements back into Netflix."

McEntee continues by talking about the passion shared by the contributors of a project, and not just the  people employed by Netflix. Drupal founder and Acquia CTO, Dries Buytaert, often refers to this as "an itch to scratch." McEntee mentions open source helps address common problems with sustainable solutions that reduce the work of many by sharing a common fix to a problem:

"The great thing about a good open source project that solves a shared challenge is that it develops it's own momentum and it is sustained for a long time by a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement."

Finally, open source wouldn't be anything without a community of people. Another way that Netflix "gets it" is because they understand it's not just about their business. By contributing to a problem they share with others, Netflix actively participates and contributes to a community that improves and advances the experience for their customers, me included. McEntee explains it this way:

"We benefit from the continuous improvements provided by the community of contributors outside of Netflix."

Why don't more companies understand this? By the simple acts of participation and contribution, you can make improvements for more than just yourself or your business. It's that simple.

Why do you think companies are hesitant to share back to the communities they so willingly take from?

Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.


Netflix 'get' that they can get external developer time for free but as for contributing to the community? No so much that they've bothered to produce a linux client for their service.

I'm assuming you're talking about streaming movies on a desktop. How many of their [Netflix] subscribers do you think actually use Linux? In the grand scheme of things, they are probably focused on what their client base has on the desktop. Remember that the bread and butter of Netflix was to drop ship DVDs. You sound so mad because they don't cater to Linux.

I didn't research much on the technology side for this piece as we have another article in the works about that--I focused on the participation and contribution aspect.

Thanks for your comment.

Not at all mad about this. I'm not a Netflix customer and won't be even if they provide a linux client. However, to make such a fuss about commitment to open source and then not support an OSS desktop client is a little rich.

I've no objection to Netflix not providing a desktop client if they feel their customer base wouldn't be interested and I have no objection to them using OSS software and making a big deal of it. However, it seems that the two stances things should somehow be more closely tied in their (and our) thoughts than they are currently.

~~ Gaxx ~~

Hey Gaxx, Glad you're not mad. Sorry it I read into that wrong.

In complete transparency, I'm a Netflix customer and I mostly stream my movies through my Roku box. Now that I can browse my queue and available movies on TV, I'm not sure I even need the DVD's mailed anymore.

With Netflix looking like they're preparing for more streaming and on-demand, I imagine we'll see some changes for desktop movie consumption. My hope is that their contributions will increase and help move to a more open platform for streaming on any desktop.

I do and it's rather annoying that I can't take any advantage of my monthly NetFlix subscription while on the road, either on my Fedora laptop or my Android phone.

Giving back something useful to open source end users would be awesome.... knock knock Netflix?

I am not sure how many Netflix subscribers use Linux (I am in that category). I am also not sure how many Linux users would use Netflix if it had a client for Linux.
However, if you look back at the techblog this blog refers to, there are currently 124 comments, and most of them are Linux users complaining about there not being a Linux client.
Also, there is an online petition here:
There are currently almost 10,000 Linux users requesting a client. Albeit, that's probably not an accurate number.
I don't think this should be about numbers and operating systems. It should be about standards.

Hi Jason,

It's been a long time... I subscribe to Netflix. My kids live on it thanks to my TiVo HD and TiVo Premier. (I just realized you didn't know about my second son, Andrew. He's 3 now, and Christopher is 4) It would be wonderful if I could stream Netflix to my Linux desktop or my Android phone, but sadly that isn't going to happen as long as Netflix doesn't really get it. The Linux desktop and the Android phone are far too open for Netflix to consider porting a player to as god forbid somebody will figure out how to save a copy of some show so their kids could see it (again) in the car. Why it's fine to rent the DVD and take it in the car, but not streaming video...? DVD's get scratched and need replacement. There are enough Linux desktop users out there for Hulu to create a player for (although they do have unfathomable restrictions on all mobile devices) so the only technical reason I see that Netflix can't (or won't) support Linux is their dependence on Microsoft (Silverlight). And no, sadly Moonlight is not compatible enough to make it work.

Well, it's time to get off my soapbox. Let's agree to disagree on this one. Keep in touch!

Hi Kloiber, great to hear from you.

I'm also disappointed that Netflix doesn't currently offer a way to stream movies on platforms that are more open--like Linux. It sounds like there is an opportunity for some collaboration among the "players" to contribute more back to open source.

Is the Hulu player open source? If so, why doesn't Hulu open source it. Then Netflix could use it. Oh no! But wait, then Netflix could contribute to it.

Beyond the compatibility issues with Linux, the point of this article was to highlight that Netflix is participating and contributing back to open source. Although it may not be what we want as Linux users, it's an important step for a company to take. How many others companies just consume open source without giving back?

The value of GNU/Linux is its "use" value. If you consider all the successful Internet IPOs of the last decade you can see them leveraging GNU/Linux and free software (what you call "open source").

Google, Facebook, Twitter (to name a few) *all* use GNU/Linux and free software because of its "use" value. They all contribute (including Netflix) back to the community of developers who build the software they "use" to make a profit. That's where their commitment ends.

They don't give a rat's behind about software freedom or "open source" as you call it. They only want to leverage "use" value to their own financial advantage and "contribute back" as a good "community" member because they know they will continue to receive the benefits of the bazaar style development model which works excellently and builds the worlds BEST software.

When Netflix caters to Windows users and Mac users and does nothing to help GNU/Linux users it speaks volumes. I'm not a Netflix user either.

So the fact Netflix client doesn't work on Linux, who's fault is it?

The studios for requiring a level of DRM that only Microsoft offers? Microsoft for not sharing their DRM with moonlight and only giving it to embedded Linux providers like Roku? Netflix for not getting better contracts which would allow for Linux support? Or us for not providing a Linux based DRM solution that meets the requirements?

Yes business do not give a "rat's behind" about anything but making money... but lets use that to our advantage.

The fact that Netflix caters to Windows and Mac users does speak volumes but I don't think it's speaking about Netflix entirely. I think it's speaking out that we have a hole that we as the Linux community need to fill. Let's face it, Netflix doesn't appear to want to exclude anyone, talking with the Dev team they seem to be branching into every area they legally can.

I am merely pointing out that Netflix is using non-proprietary software designed and distributed as free software which respects its users in order to digitally handcuff individuals with DRM.

Netflix could have purchased the software and development tools they use (or developed their own) and they could've built a 100% proprietary solution. Their work - their reward. Instead they use software written in the spirit of software freedom to kill individual digital freedom with DRM.

Only a Netflix appologist would put this on the "industry" or attempt to dismiss this as a lack of decent DRM technology in GNU, Linux or BSD software. Why would people who donate their time to the pursuit of software freedom built their own jail? Who would suggest it's their failure that it hasn't been done?

It's open as long as your OS choice is Windows or Mac.

If they don't provide a Linux client, they will have very few (maybe none) Linux clients.

Why do I have, as a client, pay in advance for a service, service that might or might not be provided in some nebulous future?

What service will I get, as a Linux client, until they implement the feature for my OS of choice?

After all, I'm a client, not an investor!!! :-)

Their's no linux client because the studios want a specific level of DRM to allow their content to be streamed. Currently that level is Microsoft DRM.

So until someone in the opensource comes up with a sufficient DRM or Microsoft released the DRM to moonlight we're stuck!

It's not actually about which desktop has the most market share, it's the damn politics around this useless DRM stuff.

That's good stuff Mikey. Beyond the DRM issues, I'm really happy to see companies, like Netflix, giving back. It's an important step and prehaps, they'll be a good friend to open source in solving these DRM problems.

I don't get why networks think that DRM does any good. If a picture goes out to the screen, any DRM is useless by definition as it can be recorded in some medium not matter what measures networks put it place. They need to realize that the only effect these measures have are on the average Joe user, as whatever they do a skilled pirate will find their way around it.

And what really sucks is that they chose MICROSOFT of all companies to do the DRM. Did they really think that M$ would serve their entire market effectively? Had sense and bad decisions all around.

While Linux is Open Source, Open Source is not only Linux.

There are a number of open source projects that does not run on Linux, usually due to some technical issue, as the source code is available for anybody who wants to, to try and port it.

I agree that if the open source community can build a better DRM-like technology that satisfies the media producer's rights while making it more accessible (like to Linux) then that would provide the greatest freedom of all because no single entity can control/edit/change the technology as they like!

DRM is a failing strategy. Putting F/OSS development efforts into it is a waste of time. Some reading for you to bring you up to speed:

Readers Digest summary: computers & networks copy files, that's what they do. Trying to make them not do that is foolish.


I agree DRM is a useless technology and anyone with a camcorder or DVD recorder can get around video DRM technology.

However, if we remember back in the day Beta was the better technology... didn't seem to matter though. So if Linux or other OS want's to play ball in a Microsoft world we need to add some of the stupidity, at least till Linux OS share goes from 5% to 30-50%. Then we can start dictating the politics, and make things right. A little wasting now might be a big gain in the future!

Just my two cents.

What's the alternative?

DRM is used because there is little alternative to keep some control of content.

DRM does not provide "control of content", nor does it provide "control of customers". It's a chimera. Once something is in digital form, it can be copied repeatedly with no loss of fidelity. That's how it gets from one computer to another, or even one location on the same computer to another. Once the data has been extracted from its DRM "envelope", guess what, it is still in digital form and the above rules still apply. Trying to change that is a fool's errand.


DRM just doesn't work and it never will. Never in the history of humankind has copying ever got harder from one year to the next (or decade to the next etc). It _is_ possible that the trend will reverse (as the studios seem to hope) but I'm betting on the precedent of the entirety of human history to prevail rather than the DRM snakeoil salesmen.

The very hardest it's ever going to get to copy a movie, for instance, is pointing your digital camcorder at the screen when playing a DRM'd movie. And keep in mind that the general person in the street doesn't need to know anything about DRM or breaking it... for them it's a web search and a download button.

All in all - DRM causes problems for the consumer, costs for the distributors/studios (which get passed on to the consumer) and serve no useful purpose. Any claims to the contrary are pretty flimsy constructs of smoke and mirrors.

It really doesn't matter if DRM is any good or not. If it provides enough comfort to the studios/networks, then open source needs to provide a solution if they want the content.

Well said!

The real problem with piracy and specifically anti-piracy groups is they aren't willing to deal with why people pirate. They just want to stop piracy because their finding they can make more money through legal action.

You take a student, who can't afford their next meal and is expected to buy a $300 software product they'll never use. (because they enjoy opensource products) So they pirate. So if we stop piracy is it going to give this kid money? Is it going to allow this kid to afford their next meal and that software? NO

What about people who pirate movies or TV Shows. If I don't pirate -- not that I do I'm on a mission to be 100% legal which is why I run Linux -- is my salary going to increase allowing me to purchase those $24 movies (which suck anyways)? NO

DRM and anti-piracy is just a smoke screen because the networks/studios don't want to deal with the real issue. They'd rather deal with the symptoms that the actual cause.

So it's up to us to keep ourselves honest? Great. Judging by politicians and corporations in the news, that's not a very rosy prospect.

Most studies have shown that there's only ever a positive impact on sales when stuff is available illegally or legally for free...

Maybe not intuitive heartwarming nonetheless

I'll give you 1 guess as to when iTunes music went DRM-free...


This has nothing to do with DRM. Hulu has DRM and they manage just fine by using flash. There is no reason why Netflix couldn't do the same or build a proprietary app with the DRM in it. They have after all created the software for Roku and GoogleTV both of which are Linux based if I remember correctly. The software exists and works. I wouldn't exactly call Netflix a good community member. They could do better.

I'll believe that Netflix is for open source when they start advocating for and using html5 video/audio tag and webm.

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