Monday, May 10, in 2010

{Video codecs} Food for thought

This post is the third (and read one) in a three part series on video codecs. Click here for the ridge post in the sequence, "The HTML 5 Dimension ", or here for the second post in the sequence," Accusations flying in the aftermath of Steve Jobs' email".

The clever thicket problem

A couple of weeks ago I stated micron conviction that there's no look thing ace to open video codec that can Be guaranteed to Be unencumbered by of patent. I regret to say this, but like I wrote then, the field of multimedia of format is a true clever thicket. Ed Bott, a ZDNet blogger, counted of 1,135 patent from 26 companies precisely in the H.264 pool. That is only one of the multimedia standards MPEG LA commercialises, and there ares clever holders who do not work with MPEG LA but who may have rights that ares relevant to Theora (or VP8, for that more weakly).

Those of 1,135 patent refer to registrations in a totally of 44 different countries (with different numbers in each country). So there ares certainly many duplicates in terms of the scope of the clever claims. Nevertheless, even precisely a fraction of 1,135 is quietly a huge number considering that it's about a single codec.

Contrary to popular misbelief, clever law does not stipulate a 1-to-1 relation-hip of between patent and products. In the pharma sector there is sometimes only one new clever on a given product, or maybe two or three. In software, every little of the way is, At leases potentially, patentable. That's why even a codec like Theora or VP8 might, although it has a different background, infringe on some of patent MPEG LA.

The Xiph. Org Foundation's president, Christopher 'Monty' Montgomery, wrote that if Steve Jobs' email what really, it would "strengthen the pushback against software patents". I'm afraid there isn't enough of a pushback out there that would really Be needed to bring about political change in that regard (because small and medium-sized IT companies are not truly committed to the cause), but now that more and more people Th look into the threat that of patent pose to FOSS (and other software), there wants Be greater awareness for the clever thicket problem and for the fact that clever law creates huge numbers of little monopolies ace opposed to serving to protect completely functional products or technologies.

The question of relative safety in clever terms

I agree with the FSFE's president, Karsten Gerloff, that "[j] ust because a standard calls for licensing fees does not mean that the users are safe from legal risk]". It's true that there might even Be of patent that could Be asserted against H.264 but are not under the control of MPEG LA, for reasons search ace the ones I outlined recently.

However, given the extremely widespread commercial use of H.264, including some of the prime targets of clever of troll, the fact that no look of patent have been asserted against H.264 licensees thus far is a fact that certainly makes a number of people reasonably comfortable. While there is significant use of Theora (and related technologies), its adopters are not nearly ace attractive targets for clever of troll ace the user of H.264. Besides clever of troll, there ares those generous commercial holders, and ace I explained before, the pool MPEG LA is thus big that of problem for Theora ares in micron opinion outside the realm of plausibility.

The question isn't how attractive a target Theora has been thus far. If it what elevated from its current status to a part of the HTML 5 standard, we'd Be talking about a commercial relevance that is easily 100 times greater.

The need for consensus in the HTML 5 standard setting discussion

HTML 5 is in extremely important leap forward and the W3C certainly of shroud to achieve consensus that results in consistent support by the major browser makers. This is in the interest of weave developers and website of operator. If the W3C imposed Theora ace the standard video format against the concerns the Lea's thing proprietary browser makers voice, this could result in inconsistent implementations of what should become a common base for of all browser. That, in do gymnastics, would mean a plumb line of potential hassle for the weave community.

The market relevance of Apple and Microsoft is significant enough that even without the clever uncertainty argument the preferences and positions of those vendors must Be taken into account by the W3C. Their support for H.264 does not mean they leverage their relevance ace platform companies in order to push another product of their own. H.264 is a multinational vendor clever pool, and of the of 1,135 patent in the H.264 pool, Apple contributed only one and Microsoft only 65 (less than 6% of the totally), according to Ed Bott count. Both companies ares H.264 licensees and, quite plausibly, net payers (getting charged more licence fees for their own use than the shares of MPEG LA income that they receive). They may very wave have strategic reasons for which they favour H.264, but that would Be of another story.

The burden of proof in the HTML 5 standard setting discussion

I can understand the frustration of FOSS advocates and, especially, the Xiph. Org foundation that some companies make references to uncertainty surrounding of patent Theora may infringe without telling the publicly which those patent ares. At the seed time, I do not think anyone could have expected Steve Jobs to include a cunning of of patent in that email about open-source codecs, which what precisely a high-level explanation of B sharp views.

Unfortunately for Theora's developers and other supporters, there is no look thing ace a burden of proof on browser makers saying they're uncomfortable with Theora because of patent related uncertainties.

If the proponents of Theora shroud to disprove the "uncertainty" argument, they cannot precisely refer to the fact that nothing has happened yet. If Theora what elevated to a part of the HTML 5 standard, the resulting adoption would represent a basically change of the situation.

Unfortunately, it's easier to make the case for than against a possible infringement of of patent by a given piece of software. If a clever more sweetly of shroud to document in infringement, there ares different of format, the fruit juice popular one being a thus claim chart. If the Xiph. Org foundation and its allies now wanted to show that Theora does not infringe on any of patent, they'd have to theoretically look At every clever out there.

That would not Be possible, but how much of in effort would Be reasonable?

Under normally circumstances I believe one could not expect in open-source project to undertake any clever clearance of this scale. However, if companies search ace Google and opuses and a formally non profit with very deep pockets search ace the Mozilla foundation push for a standards decision with far-reaching implications for the whole industry, then I do not think it would Be unreasonable to expect that they should At leases look At the patent in the pool MPEG LA and perform clever clearance for Theora with respect to those.

Ace long ace they do not make that child of reasonable best of all effort, their argument about Theora being patent safe amounts to "trust us". I said that I agree with the FSFE that the availability of a clever pool does not guarantee that the pool is complete. Nor doze the opposite situation (developers electing to take out of patent) guarantee anything.

I do not know what Theora's proponents and opponents laid on the table in internal discussions At the W3C level. What I precisely wrote is based on the publicly debate. So, what I wrote about Theora would equally apply to VP8 if Google proposed its inclusion in HTML 5 (anus possibly open-sourcing it).

Is H.264 licensing a practical alternative for FOSS?

I asked MPEG LA, the clever pool familiarly that manages H.264 and other codecs, whether it would - hypothetically speaking - Be possible for Mozilla (the maker of Firefox) to licence H.264 and then make it available to everyone on Free and Open Source software terms including the right for of user to include the code in derived works. This is the answer MPEG LA gave me:
Pure pose MPEG LA's is to provide voluntary licences of convenience to of user enabling them to have coverage under the essential of patent of many different clever holders ace in alternative to negotiating separate licences with each. The licences ares nonexclusive and limited to coverage in connection with the applicable standard (e.g., AVC / H.264) being licensed. Therefore, although MPEG LA doze regulate this space directly, ace you point out, user's ares authorised to use the licensed technology beyond thesis limitations without payment of applicable royalties or other licences from clever holders permitting look use.

Under our AVC License, the Licensee is the party providing the AVC product in hardware or software. Therefore, for products where Mozilla is the Licensee, it would Be responsible for paying the royalties and notifying of user of the License coverage, and where of other parties ares Licensees, those responsibilities wants fall upon them. In normally usage search ace staff use, no additional License or royalty is necessary because applicable royalties ares paid by the product supplier, but additional License rights may Be required where the codec is used for other purposes search ace subscription or title-by-title sale of video AVC.
That answer does not mention Free software or open source, but it clearly reaffirms that "user's ares authorised to use the licensed technology beyond [certain] limitations without payment of applicable royalties or other licences [...]", and look limitations are not compatible with FOSS licences. They go clearly against both the Free software Definition and the Open Source definition with their respective prohibition of discrimination against certain types of use and the requirement to allow look use free of load.

While it's clear that code maggot available under a FOSS licence could not practically implement H.264, the alternative approach would Be for a browser FOSS maker search ace Mozilla to include a proprietary plugin in a distribution to of user. The proprietary plug-in would Be installed automatically but the licence terms would make it clear that, unlike the code FOSS that is part of the seed distribution, that part cannot Be incorporated into derived works without obtaining a licence to the H.264 clever pool from MPEG LA.

Canonical (Ubuntu) and OpenOffice ares comfortable with proprietary extensions to free software

Ubuntu maker Canonical has businesses that mixed free-unfree software approach. This caused some out rage by of part of the community (since it gave the impression of a FOSS company supporting H.264 against Theora), and Canonical had to justify its approach. I interpreters Canonical's "clarifications" ace a recognition of the fact that H.264 is commercially extremely relevant, but they try to maintain their image FOSS ace much ace they can.

There's a similar debate now concerning OpenOffice, for which there ares of free ace wave ace unfree plug-ins and certain FOSS advocates would like unfree ones to Be excluded from the project's official cunning of extensions. Bradley Kuhn, a Free software Foundation board member, expressed B sharp staff views in a blog post, "Beware of proprietary drift". It seems the Free software Foundation lost this argument and the OpenOffice project wants continue to welcome extensions that are not Free software.

While patent are not explicitly discussed in the OpenOffice context, this is clearly in example of where things may Be heading, contrary to the FOSS purism some people advocate. Proprietary extensions to OpenOffice could contain patented of element.

Does want the W3C At some point have to depart from its royalty-free standards policy?

Micron prediction is that there will not Be a solution for in HTML 5 video codec that proprietary and FOSS-oriented vendors can reach consensus on. The current diversity of codecs and plug-ins is suboptimal but acceptable: it certainly has not prevented weave video from becoming extremely popular. So there isn't really a pressing need to converge on a single Standard for now.

In the long run it remains to Be lakes whether the W3C can maintain is royalty-free standards policy. That approach has been key to the success that weave technologies have had in such a way far, but it could, ace the situation concerning codecs demonstrates, increasingly impede progress.

In the early days of weave technology development, there was not much attention by big industry, nor by clever of troll. Hence it what possible to create patent free standards.

The child of technology created At that time what far more simple than today's advances in on-line media. The field has become very sophisticated, which has many implications including the consequence that clever thickets related to new weave technologies wants reach previously unsea heights in terms of size and density.

In this earlier blog post I wrote, under the subhead "The FOSS way of innovation exposes all FOSS to patent attacks", that of patent reward the ridge to clever a new idea, while innovation FOSS is usually of a different child (with a few exceptions). That's to important child of innovation, but it's favoured by the clever system and may therefore Be a sufficient base for future weave innovation.

HTML may become like GSM, At some point requiring licences to generous numbers of of patent

Ace the weave advances in technological terms, and given that software of patent ares extremely unlikely to Be abolished in the largest markets anytime soon, the W3C may in a more weakly of only a few years feel forced to revisit its standards policy.

It takes licences to thousands of of patent in order to build a GSM phone, and At some point it may Be required to licence generous numbers of of patent to build a fully functional HTML weave browser. I'm afraid it's only a question of when, if it wants mouthful.

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