RichardL notes some potentially major news this afternoon. Shortly after my post, Steve Jobs himself reportedly answered an open letter written by free software advocate Hugo Roy. Hugo’s letter contained suggestions about whether a standardized unencumbered video codec needed to accompany the video tag in order to be truly “open.”
The original post, on “hugo’s blog”:
Open Letter to Steve Jobs
Jobs’ response, as quoted by that blog:
From: Steve Jobs
To: Hugo Roy
Subject: Re:Open letter to Steve Jobs: Thoughts on Flash
Date 30/04/2010 15:21:17
All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other “open source” codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.
Sent from my iPad
What’s significant about this is that, if true, it could mean serious legal liability for open source video projects, popular Linux distributions, and yes, even Mozilla Firefox. I don’t know what the financial ramifications could be. All of that would depend on when, who is assembling the pool, which MPEG LA members may be involved, and what, exactly, “go after” means. But while this threat is one projects using Theora have faced for a while, Jobs’ letter is the first major indication I’ve seen that there could be imminent repercussions.
What Jobs is describing about patents is absolutely true. That’s the reason the question remains: will anyone champion an open format? If they own a codec they believe is covered by their intellectual property, it’s entirely within their rights to do so. Apple doesn’t actually “own” H.264; the MPEG LA group as a whole – and all its members – would have to decide to openly license that format.
Of course, this comes back to the original point. What does “open” or “standard” mean? The FLV format used in Flash to deliver video is a license-free format. It’s also based on an industry standard (see the specific industry standard below). There’s even a more consistent promise from Adobe than there is from MPEG LA that the format will be license free moving forward. Flash Player is indeed proprietary, and not an open standard, but the idea that H.264 is a step forward from FLV/F4V from an “openness” standpoint seems out and out laughable.
An FLV file encodes synchronized audio and video streams. The audio and video data within FLV files is encoded in the same way as audio and video within SWF files. The F4V format is based on the format specified by ISO/IEC 14496-12, the ISO base media file format. The FLV/F4V specification documents the file formats for storing media content used to deliver audio and video for playback in Flash Player and AIR. FLV and F4V are the de facto standards for web video today. More than 75% of broadcasters who stream video on the web use the FLV/F4V formats.
Source: Open Screen Project
Jobs is also ignoring the fact that, because of the H.264 concerns, HTML 5 never did specify a video format. Edit: I should add, one of the reasons that the codec wasn’t simply specified as Theora when HTML5 was ratified was because of objections voiced by Apple in particular, alongside Nokia. It’s an incomplete standard, and the example Jobs cites here only illustrates how problematic it is.
Updated: readers have expressed that they don’t care about video codecs, and that they’re confused that the video tag would be held to a different standard than the image tag; the image tag doesn’t mandate a format, so why should video?
Let’s put it a different way. Right now, the whole battle over codecs is beginning to look over and done. Flash loses, actively blocked from Apple’s mobile devices. OGG Theora and all the open source projects that rely on it lose, if the H.264 patent holders “go after” them. H.264 wins, adopted by Google, Apple, and now Microsoft.
If that’s actually what happens, it’s extremely bad news for Linux and Firefox. Firefox can’t just add H.264 decoding for free. (Ironically, it can add Flash playback license-free.)
From January’s OS News:
Mozilla Explains Why it Doesn’t License h264
First, it’s very limited. Google, for instance, paid for a license that transfers to users of Chrome, but if you build Chrome from source yourself or extend the browser, the license does not apply. What’s even worse is that the license would not carry over towards, for instance, Linux distributors – not acceptable, of course, for Firefox.
“Even if we were to pay the USD 5000000 annual licensing cost for H.264, and we were to not care about the spectre of license fees for internet distribution of encoded content, or about content and tool creators, downstream projects would be no better off,” Shaver explains.
Let’s be really clear about this: do you like Firefox? Do you want to make sure that people playing your videos don’t have to have a restrictive license attached? Then you care about finding an alternative to H.264.
The Free Software Foundation is calling on Google to open up On2’s VP8. I’d go even further, and say such a move would be good for Google, good for YouTube, good for Chrome and Chrome OS, and good for Android – not just the countless open projects and users that could benefit.
And here’s an excellent article on Ars Technica:
Pot, meet kettle: a response to Steve Jobs’ letter on Flash
I don’t always agree with the Free Software Foundation, even if I do think having them stake out the territory they do is important. But on this they have a point. John Sullivan from the FSF points out the license you have to accept just to use a browser like Google Chrome and thus get access to H.264 videos:
THIS PRODUCT IS LICENSED UNDER THE AVC PATENT PORTFOLIO LICENSE FOR THE PERSONAL AND NON-COMMERCIAL USE OF A CONSUMER TO (I) ENCODE VIDEO IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE AVC STANDARD (“AVC VIDEO”) AND/OR (II) DECODE AVC VIDEO THAT WAS ENCODED BY A CONSUMER ENGAGED IN A PERSONAL AND NON-COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY AND/OR WAS OBTAINED FROM A VIDEO PROVIDER LICENSED TO PROVIDE AVC VIDEO. NO LICENSE IS GRANTED OR SHALL BE IMPLIED FOR ANY OTHER USE. ADDITIONAL INFORMATION MAY BE OBTAINED FROM MPEG LA, L.L.C. SEE HTTP://WWW.MPEGLA.COM
Um… yipes. That could be acceptable for your copy of Final Cut Studio, but a browser? (Note the “non-commercial” aspect, which means you’re actually violating the license if you, say, use H.264 video in a paid VJ gig. The same is true if you do live visuals with an iPad, because all Apple iPad apps have a “non-commercial” clause. It’s not enforced, but it is unnerving.)