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06.16.10

Striding Towards Codec Freedom to Remove ‘Linux Tax’ from Dell

Posted in Dell, Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, Google, Patents, Red Hat, Ubuntu at 6:30 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Summary: The importance of WebM, its progress in GNU/Linux-compatible Web browsers, and Google’s situation wrt MPEG-LA FUD

A few weeks ago Mozilla's CEO was quoted as saying that WebM is safe to use and it finally comes to Firefox 4 (trunk):

Opera is getting it too and optimisations are being reported by the developers at Google:

Since WebM launched in May, the team has been working hard to make the VP8 video codec faster. Our community members have contributed improvements, but there’s more work to be done in some interesting areas related to performance (more on those below).

The elephant in the room is still MPEG-LA, which is a patent aggressor that agitates Google. We wrote about the subject in posts such as:

The patent issue continues to come up in some articles about WebM:

In other words, if Google doesn’t address patent indemnification-or at least release information about its findings on the patents efficacy-a new licensing pool will be created to capitalize on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Yet Google seems more concerned with modifying its WebM FAQ than it is with helping the online video world understand the practical and financial benefits of an open-source competitor to H.264.

So the patent issue and Google’s existing plan matter a lot here. Fortunately, we have received some valuable information over the past few days. It helps us understand how Google views MPEG-LA. Florian Müller has had a scoop and he finally gave us the needed permission to shoot off the following:

“[S]omeone told me something that raises doubt about MPEG LA’s $5 million license fee cap but that same source has now substantially weakened its claims to the extent that the cap actually seems to be the case at least for most companies,” Müller told us.

Prior to this there was a stronger claim. “Concerning video codecs I heard something that raises doubt about the $5 million license fee cap, but I’ll try to obtain authorization from someone so I can attribute a quote to a person rather than just saying it’s a good source,” he expounded.

“The source originally claimed that contrary to the related claim made on MPEG LA’s website, the source has information that some licensees do indeed have to pay much more for such reasons as the $5 million per-company per-year royalty cap not including all categories of products.”
      –Florian Müller
Later he wrote: “The source does not want to be named. The conversation took place at this event in Brussels on Wednesday. The house rules allow quoting from what was said at the event, but it’s not allowed to say WHO said something (without permission, of course). The source originally claimed that contrary to the related claim made on MPEG LA’s website, the source has information that some licensees do indeed have to pay much more for such reasons as the $5 million per-company per-year royalty cap not including all categories of products. With a view to the house rules of the event, I asked the source, which was present at the event and may have information I don’t, whether I could provide its name when quoting. The source asked not to be named. Meanwhile (yesterday) the source also added this clarification: “For most companies, they probably don’t see much more than one overall fee.” I will mention this on my blog next time I report on codecs [...] The thing is that philosophically I’m against those codec royalties, but economically, if big companies pay a maximum of $5 million per year, it’s not a fundamental problem to the industry and those who end up paying are largely in favor of software patents anyway, so I’m not much more sympathetic to them than to MPEG LA. I’m most sympathetic to those who want to get rid of software patents but are attacked nevertheless.”

Finally, Müller said: “I don’t know when to put it out because it was no longer the “gem” I thought it was once I received that additional clarification about most companies just seeing one item on the bill. You know, I would really have liked to call into question the truthfulness of the representations they make about the cap, but with the clarification the same source provided, it doesn’t really have a lot of teeth anymore.”

Google is often criticised for secrecy, so we found it neither surprising nor curious that “there are some confidentiality-related sensitivities there: at the start of the event in Brussels, the chairman announced the “house rules” which related to quoting…”

This matter is extremely important because codecs like Theora and VP8 help eliminate the patent problem often associated with codecs in GNU/Linux. To platforms like Windows and Mac OS X it matters a lot less, for sure (they already ship the codecs on the computer/CD). A couple of years ago Red Hat cited codecs as a key reason for abandoning plans to release a desktop product.

Some days ago we learned that software patents may affect the motivation of Free software developers — a subject that Glyn Moody has just elaborated on:

What this might mean is that although hackers’ views and motivations are relatively unaffected by the existence of software patents, they might in fact find themselves hugely affected if major software companies or patent trolls start trying to assert their software patent portfolios – something that many fear might happen. True, this is only speculation, but at the very least, it might provide an interesting topic for further research….

Here in Europe, codec patents can be more or less ignored, at least in theory*, but as multinational companies like Dell are selling computers here, it is hard to avoid the MPEG ‘codec tax’ which even a Ubuntu machine from Dell comes with [1, 2] (yes, also in Europe). This issue ought to be resolved in order to make GNU/Linux free (which it’s not, at least not from major, multinational OEMs).
____
* Nevertheless, as Müller points out, “you can find links to stories on the rigid enforcement of MP3/MP4 patents in Europe, particularly at the CeBIT trade show. So much for the exclusion of patents on software in Article 52 of the European Patent Convention…”

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