The Coming Codec Storm

On: May 5, 2010
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About John Haltiwanger
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Perhaps you’ve heard of the new <video> tag in HTML5? The first major new version of HTML since HTML 4 in 1997 (how many Internet years are there in a dog year, anyway?) contains several new tags that allow for embedding of multimedia objects without the need for third-party software such as Adobe Flash or Java. Except, if the future belongs to the proprietary platforms, there will be one necessary piece of third-party code. And it could cost us another chunk of freedom.

This third-party code is a ‘codec,’ standing for ‘compression/decompression,’ called h.264, the bureau-nym of the ubiquitious MPEG-4 AVC format behind videos on YouTube and movies in the iTunes Store alike. Not only that, your camera probably records into this format, especially if it is listed as HD. So, it’s everywhere: what’s the problem?

The problem is that any camera that uses this codec (or the popular MPEG2) automatically locks you into a non-commercial licensing of that codec through the MPEG-LA. OSNews writer Eugenia Loli-Queru writes:

They have created such broad license agreements, with such a stronghold around the whole chain of production (from shooting to delivering), that they could make liable the whole EU/US population, and beyond. This is major. This is one of these things where the DoJ should get involved. This is one of the situations that can destroy art. I’m a video producer myself (I direct rock music videos for local bands without compensation, and I also shoot Creative Commons nature videos), and I much prefer to never hold a camera in my hands ever again than to pay these leeches a dime. If MPEG-LA enforces all that they CAN enforce via their various EULAs, then fewer and fewer people will want to record anything of note to share with others.

And that’s how an artistic culture can ROT. By creating the circumstances where making art, in a way that doesn’t get in your way, is illegal. Only big corporations would be able to even grab a camera and shoot. And if only big corporations can shoot video that they can share (for free or for money), then we end up with what Creative Commons’ founder, Larry Lessig, keeps saying: a READ-ONLY CULTURE.

There is a lot at stake. Microsoft has recently announced that they will not support any codec besides h.264 in Internet Explorer 9, even going so far as to suggest that the lack of support for Xiph.org’s open-source Theora codec, the emaciated elephant in the room whenever “other” codecs are discussed. There is no other codec remotely positioned to compete with h.264, so when Microsoft calls into question the legality (in regards to patents) of “other” codecs and gives that as the reason to not support “other” codecs, we can safely take that as a veiled threat of future legal maneuvers. Microsoft is, after all, a patent holder in the MPEG-LA.

Though Theora has long been positioned as the reasonable, open-source (and thus open Web) solution for the HTML5 tag, things are not looking in its favor. The muscle of MS alone is poised to make Theora irrelevant. Throw in Apple and its increasingly popular platforms and you have something of a knockout punch. The only reasonable avenue of contestation lies with Google’s decisions regarding YouTube and their recently acquired codec, On2’s VP8. There is speculation (and open prodding from Xiph.org and Free Software Foundation representatives) that Google will donate VP8 to Xiph and re-encode their massive video libraries into the new codec. MPEG-LA likes to insinuate that their patents cover processes necessary to encoding video, ergo every codec that is not from MPEG-LA is posed as violating at least one of their patents.

This saber rattling should be viewed in light of the fact that the CEO of the MPEG-LA is also the CEO of ‘patent troll’ MPEG-LA subsidiary MobileMedia. Patent trolls are also called ‘non-practicing entities.’ This particular one, MobileMedia, has already initiated lawsuits against Apple and others. The most dangerous thing about ‘non-practicing entities’ is that they have no fear of market fluctuations resulting from patent lawsuits, as the only market they are in is the lawsuits themselves. Techdirt’s Michael Masnick observes,

In the meantime, while all this has been going on, it’s worth noting that Steve Jobs — one of the targets in this lawsuit — has apparently been telling people that MPEG-LA is getting ready to sue open video codecs, such as Theora, for patent infringement. Of course, such threats have been made before and never carried out — but if MPEG-LA now thinks that suing for patent infringement (rather than just alerting the patent holders to possible infringement) is the way to go these days, perhaps the lawsuits above were an opening salvo.

Get some popcorn, people. This could be a hell of a show.

Further Readings:

Kroc Camen. IE9 HTML5 Video Will Be H264 Only

Eugenia Loli-Queru. Why Our Civilization’s Video Art and Culture is Threatened by the MPEG-LA

Monty. In Defense of Ogg’s Good Name.

John Sullivan. Pot, meet kettle: A response to Steve Jobs’ letter on Flash.

Mike Masnick. Why is MPEG-LA Getting into the Patent Trolling Game?

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