Summary: Why the next version of your Web browser, media player or GNU/Linux distribution will probably contain VP8/WebM code; Apple and MPEG-LA continue to be the main barriers to VP8/WebM adoption
OUR last post ended with a word of warning about Microsoft patents that prevent access to one’s own videos, assuming that they are encoded using Microsoft’s own formats. The lesson to be learned from all this is that software patents which cover video compression are unacceptable and dangerous to society. This is why Ogg Theora/Vorbis and VP8/WebM are so important. The latter is currently being implemented/deployed in GNU/Linux, which already supports Ogg in all its varieties.
All in all, the Linux community has made a lot of progress implementing support for WebM in two short weeks. Given that few content providers are supporting the codec yet (Google-owned YouTube being the major exception), free-software users are ahead of the curve on this issue. And that’s definitely the right side of the curve to be on.
The Open Source Programs Manager from Google writes to inform everyone about necessary changes to the WebM licence. In his own words:
You’ll see on the WebM license page and in our source code repositories that we’ve made a small change to our open source license. There were a couple of issues that popped up after we released WebM at Google I/O a couple weeks ago, specifically around how the patent clause was written.
There used to be the issue of patents and GPL incompatibility. This is resolved. It’s all rather lovely, “but still no patent indemnification,” claims Florian Müller. Brett Smith from the FSF is more satisfied than that. “Google just updated the WebM license to make it GPL compatible,” he writes. Being a key GPL person, Smith also published the official statement from the FSF:
A couple of weeks ago Google announced their WebM project, which provided a free software implementation of their VP8 video codec and a license to exercise the patents the company held on the software. (This after we appealed to them to do just that a couple of months prior.) The license they chose was unambiguously free: a three-clause BSD license combined with a patent license based on one found in the Apache License 2.0. Unfortunately, the interaction between the copyright license and the patent license made the result GPL-incompatible. Based on the concerns of developers writing GPL-covered software, Google publicly stated that they would take some time to review the WebM license and try to address the community’s concerns. Today, they released a revised license, and it is GPL-compatible.
Simon Phipps (OSI) had this to say:
Google has also eliminated the incompatibility with the GPLv2 and GPLv3 licences that existed in the original language, which means that it will be possible for WebM to be readily incorporated in the GNU environment and in GNU/Linux.
By removing that part of the custom licence, what is left is a “three clause” BSD licence which is an OSI approved form of open source licence. Simon Phipps, the OSI board member who pointed out the original problem, was “pleased to say that project is now fully open source” in his blog where he congratulated Google on the “timely and welcome” correction of its “licencing and community-relations error”.
“Google open codec wins OSI love after patent shield rethink,” reports The Register.
Google has rejiggered the license on its open-source VP8 video codec after complaints that it wasn’t really open source.
Ars Technica emphasises compatibility with the BSD licence.
Google is adopting the BSD license for WebM in order to address a licensing conflict. When Google opened up the VP8 codec and announced the launch of the WebM project during the Google I/O conference last month, the actual license under which the code was distributed was not an official open source software license. It was a custom license that had not yet been approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), the organization responsible for maintaining the open source definition and validating licenses.
Google’s custom license posed some problems because it included clauses that made it incompatible with GNU’s General Public License (GPL), the most widely-used open source software license. It was a minor technicality, but one that would have broadly precluded adoption of WebM in many popular open source software applications. Fortunately, Google has rectified the conflict and has found an acceptable way to harmonize its licensing terms with the GPL.
To avoid the resulting incompatibility with the GPL, Google decided to use a standard BSD license instead for the software copyright and draft a separate set of terms for the WebM patent grant.
“Using patent language borrowed from both the Apache and GPLv3 patent clauses, in this new iteration of the patent clause we’ve decoupled patents from copyright, thus preserving the pure BSD nature of the copyright license,” wrote DiBona. “This means we are no longer creating a new open source copyright license, and the patent grant can exist on its own.”
It’s all good news, until Apple comes in.
There’s open as the rest of the world thinks of it and there’s Apple open, which is what Steve Jobs wants it to mean. Jobs is very keen to dismiss Flash as a proprietary product, which it is, although iPhones and iPads also run proprietary operating systems.
Google is going down a different path entirely. Last month, it released VP8, a genuinely open compression format designed to handle multimedia on the web and not be beholden to proprietary software. Unlike Apple, the company does have a genuine commitment to openness. Having said that, there is a debate as to whether VP8 is quite as open as it appears to be – and whether it differs much from H.264.
But the difference is that Google is, I believe, genuinely looking top open standards, while Apple is a law unto itself.
Separately, writes Florian Müller to us, “I’ve commented once again on WebM. As you can see in case you read this, I don’t take the same position as FSF/OSI. Their concern is to push for a “free” codec no matter what. My concern is whether early adopters of WebM would be exposed to too much of a risk and whether Google should do more to protect them. All of that is independent from the fact that I’d prefer to see software patents abolished, which would spell the end for MPEG LA and anyone pursuing a similar “business model”.” Here is the blog post which raises fair points.
Google’s WebM initiative is somewhere in the middle between a true act of generosity and an IBM-style scheme:
* There’s no reason to assume that Google wants to hurt the FOSS cause in any way with WebM, especially not in any IBM-like way. I don’t put it past Google to have that intention elsewhere: they might do anything, including the use of patents, to destroy an open source search technology that could adversely affect their core business. However, in this particular context of video codecs, I don’t think they intend to cause harm. I do believe them that they want more competition in this case.
* What Google does do — and what I believe the FOSS community must approach cautiously — is to shift most of the risk to others while keeping most of the benefits to itself. Businesses like to do that, but FOSS developers and users shouldn’t lose sight of the risks just out of excitement over the idea of getting a seemingly “unencumbered” codec.
Google will retain control over WebM despite open-sourcing program code and publishing specifications
A common misconception about open source and “free” specifications is that this would make something such as the WebM project independent from a single vendor or a group of vendors. Some think this puts “the community” in charge.
There are lessons to be learned from Android. Google has not yet done anything which substantially reduces trust. Control is not the main issue here; the main issue is probably patents. There’s an urgent need to get past them. █