It’s needlessly hard to see a movie on the web because there are no widely-accepted standards for how movies should be encoded as data. Currently popular choices become unpopular later and none of them are well-documented (in a technical sense) or legally in the clear so that all browser programmers can implement them. We end up with a set of incompatible methods to do roughly the same thing.
Ogg Theora+Vorbis can change that but Apple and Nokia are fighting it. They want their preferred patent-encumbered formats to become the standard means for distributing video online. This is a real problem for anyone who can’t pay for the relevant patent licenses, which means all free software hackers.
“Ogg” is a wrapper that ties together “Theora” encoded video and “Vorbis” encoded sound. Together, Ogg Theora+Vorbis give users a way to see movies on your computer. Ogg Vorbis+Theora are not known to be encumbered by any patents (the only applicable patent on Theora’s predecessor, called “VP3″, was licensed for everyone to use in any way they want). Ogg Theora+Vorbis are implementable on nearly all modern computers. There is free software (zero-cost and freely to sharable and modifiable) to make and play Ogg Vorbis+Theora movies. Ogg Vorbis+Theora are a great basis for interoperability and a fine choice to recommend in any standard that uses multimedia files precisely because everyone can use Ogg Theora+Vorbis.
Ogg Theora+Vorbis was in the drafts for the next generation of HTML (the lingua franca of webpages) as a suggestion; nobody would have been required to implement support for Ogg Theora+Vorbis. But that didn’t stop the proprietors from complaining.
What’s the holdup?
Ian Hickson, speaking for the HTML5 working group, recently announced that he removed the suggested Ogg Theora+Vorbis language from the HTML5 specification. The replacement language says that there should be unencumbered common audio and video formats in HTML but it doesn’t suggest any specific means of accomplishing that.
How did this situation come to pass? What happened between the time this spec was drafted and now? Corporate influence, in a nutshell. Apple and Nokia’s complaints have found an ear with those working on HTML specs.
What can you do to stop this? Raise the issue far and wide with everyone, even non-technical computer users. It’s time that these issues no longer live exclusively in the realm where only geeks tread.
Apple and Nokia never liked the language supporting Ogg Vorbis+Theora codecs. Nokia lied by claiming Ogg Vorbis and Theora were “proprietary”. What Nokia probably meant is that the evolution of the Vorbis and Theora codecs were not under the control of a corporate board which Nokia could become a member (and thus have a hand in controlling how Theora and Vorbis improve). Ogg Theora+Vorbis specifications are available for anyone to use for any purpose.
Apple’s representative in the discussion, Maciej Stachowiak, expressed concern that Ogg Vorbis+Theora might be encumbered by patents we don’t yet know about (commonly referred to as “submarine patents”). This is a bogus argument for a few reasons:
No modern software is 100% verifiably free from patent infringement.
If one fears submarine patents, one should not turn on a computer (users are at risk for losing a patent infringement case too). Raising fear that a patent holder might sue is a means of trying to stop the free software community from participating as equals in the making of relevant standards. In cases where known patents are actively defended (like the Fraunhofer patents covering MP3), there’s good reason to be cautious. Submarine patents are closer to the opposite of that case.
- The MPEG licensing authority (MPEG-LA) doesn’t guarantee that their patents cover everything
Hub put it well in a response to a blog on this topic:
Concerning submarine patents over Ogg and associated codecs, this argument is total bullshit. Even the MPEG-LA does not offer any warranty that they are licensing all the patents necessary to implement the specification. In short, even if you pay the patent protection money to the MPEG-LA gangster, there is not insurance that another gangster won’t be coming after you for another protection racket.
Just how at risk are the companies that paid off the MPEG-LA gangster? Xiph, the organization that made Ogg Vorbis and Theora, pointed out some recent MPEG-related patent threats:
Despite the MPEG proponents’ claims that MPEG-licensed codecs protect against liability, patent disputes involving MPEG codecs have occurred as recently as the past few months. For example, Lucent v. Gateway and Multimedia Patent Trust v. Microsoft Corp.. The MPEG-LA’s own sublicense disclaimer warns that licensees are not protected from patent-related litigation nor are they protected from submarine patents.
We don’t need what is technically “the best”.
Even if all browsers end up supporting Ogg Theora/Vorbis, these are not the best-compression codecs available. So a large-scale video content provider that wants to save on bandwidth may wish to provide H.264/AAC content to those browsers that can handle it, even if all browsers could handle a lower-quality codec as well.
H.264/AAC are patent-encumbered formats Apple has licensed and uses frequently. No matter how “best” is defined, what people need is something common, unencumbered, freely-implementable, and good enough most of the time. Ogg Vorbis+Theora qualifies and Apple’s preferred codecs don’t. Ogg Vorbis+Theora is quite good at what it does, plenty good enough for watching clips or entire feature-length movies on a computer. YouTube became famous with far lower-quality audio and video. Software is continually upgraded; we all accept that we are frequently running not-the-best most of the time.
If you build it, they will come…
Apple contends that
Many mobile devices cannot practically implement decoding in software, and rely on custom hardware which can handle only a fixed set of codecs. While hardware decoders for H.264 are widely available, I don’t think there are any for Ogg Theora.
Even if that’s true, it’s no reason for discriminating against a free software codec like Ogg Theora+Vorbis. Increased use will spur people to make more hardware to record and play Ogg Theora+Vorbis videos. There was a time where H.264 decoding wasn’t popular, I guess we’re supposed to consider ourselves lucky that didn’t stand in the way of anyone implementing such hardware?
What’s important is the critical difference between a proprietor’s interest (restricting the number of competitors to those in a similar position when outright elimination isn’t possible) and software freedom (letting everyone run, share, and modify computer software, and in doing so socially organize for our mutual benefit). Proprietors would prefer that everyone switch to using what that proprietor can deliver today: for Apple this means QuickTime and QuickTime-compatible codecs, Nokia licenses various codecs and makes money from selling patent licenses to their own codecs. But since no proprietor can swing total dominance, each will settle for keeping the status quo of nothing-works-universally for as long as it benefits them because each proprietor recognizes that that confusion keeps their software viable for their portion of the multimedia audience.
Once the patents covering MPEG development have expired worldwide, Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, and other corporations will lose interest in these formats because the exclusivity has vanished. Despite their distractive arguments their interest here has nothing to do with perceived quality of video or audio, hardware availability, or irrational fear of submarine patents. A proprietor’s main interest has primarily to do with sustaining monopoly and keeping competitors away. These companies want to make sure that the public is in no position to mount an effective threat to the established multimedia codec powers that be. Microsoft, Apple, Nokia, etc. don’t like dealing with each other as it is, but they’ll be damned if they’re going to let people like you compete with them too.