05.26.10

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WebM/VP8 is Not Open Source

Posted in Apple, Free/Libre Software, Microsoft, Patents at 4:31 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

“Based on years of conversations, I am convinced that part of the cause of the problem is the tendency to call the system Linux rather than GNU, and describe it as open source rather than free software.”

Richard Stallman

Summary: MPEG-LA/H.264, Apple, and Microsoft appear to be the only prominent opponents of WebM/VP8; The OSI explains why Google needs to refine the licence

PERHAPS we congratulated Google a little prematurely [1, 2]. There are improvements to be made to Google’s unusual licence, but first, let’s look at the good sides of VP8.

Joe Brockmeier is optimistic about Google’s WebM, Adobe added support for VP8 and Moovida’s support of VP8 is mentioned by Martin Kaba, not to mention Opera’s support (Opera was also a major backer of Ogg).

Looking for a media player to playback your videos converted to open WebM with Miro Video Converter, then grab Moovida media player. Open Source Moovida media player formerly known as Elisa is one of the first media players to boast support of the open source VP8 codec.

There is already fairly widespread support for VP8.

A browser that supports WebM content isn’t much use if there’s no WebM content to play, and Google has that covered too. Anyone opting into YouTube’s HTML5 front-end will be able to use WebM for video playback by appending “&webm=1″ to the URL.

The exceptions, as expected, are Apple and Microsoft, not to mention MPEG-LA. IDG puts it like this:

Google faces off against Microsoft, Apple over Web video standard

[...]

“We now have a great format for video,” added Hakon Wium Lie, Opera’s chief technology officer. “We all have video cameras in our pockets. Let’s use them, let’s back WebM.”

“Microsoft tepid in its support for Google’s WebM video plan,” say Microsoft bloggers as Microsoft promotes H.264 and other problematic codecs.

I’ve been using Real Alternative for years. It works well and is 100% transparent, that is, it doesn’t bug you about anything, ever. It just registers itself as a DirectShow filter (Microsoft-speak for a codec) and with your browsers, then decodes virtually any Real Media file ever created. It’s good enough that I haven’t even considered installing RealPlayer in years.

From South Africa we have:

Unsurprisingly, Apple and Microsoft are among the companies licensing the use of H.264, so stand to make money, and lots of it if the format is widely adopted.

The only other competitor to H.264, until a couple of days ago, was Theora, an open source format favoured by Mozilla, Google and Opera. But the chances of Theora succeeding have always seemed very slim, particularly as Jobs has already made it clear that Apple was looking at hitting Theora hard with patent suits.

Apple and Microsoft have also made it very clear that they wouldn’t be supporting Theora in their future browser releases.

Other competitors of VP8 are spreading FUD, some of which is worth attention. There is another new comparison between VP8 and H.264:

VP8 is now free, but if the quality is substandard, who cares? Well, it turns out that the quality isn’t substandard, so that’s not an issue, but neither is it twice the quality of H.264 at half the bandwidth. See for yourself, below.

To set the table, Sorenson Media was kind enough to encode these comparison files for me to both H.264 and VP8 using their Squish encoding tool. They encoded a standard SD encoding test file that I’ve been using for years. I’ll do more testing once I have access to a VP8 encoder, but wanted to share these quick and dirty results.

Diego’s latest rant is actually not much of a rant. He addresses the alleged FUD that’s mentioned above.

Now, Dark Shikari of x264 fame dissected the codec and in part the file format; his words are – not unexpectedly, especially for those who know him – quite harsh, but as Mike put it “This open sourcing event has legs.”

Perhaps the only real disappointment is that VP8/WebM is not Open Source, according to Michael Tiemann (OSI). Was it too good to be true?

This note from Apple was like a rabid dog barking at the pound, for it seemed to set off a flurry of patent-rattling from all corners, with Microsoft quickly claiming that Salesforce.com infringed nine of their patents, Nokia claiming that Apple infringed 5 more of its patents, HTC getting into the fray, etc.

And then along comes Google. And instead of piling on to this patent suit scrum, they offer immunity instead. Which is astonishing.

I have to give some props to the FSF for asking for precisely what Google seems to have decided to do. They wrote an open letter asking Google to free VP8 and use it on YouTube. The bigger part of that decision now seems to have been effected. Which, to use the FSF’s own adjective, is amazing. And cause for both gratitude and celebration.

And of course this is not the end of the story, but the beginning. The license Google wrote for VP8 smacks of OSD goodness, but it has not yet been submitted to the OSI for approval. Should the OSI approve yet another license? Should the OSI treat a patent grant attached to a license we’ve already approved as two separate items, a patent grant (which is great) and a license we’ve already approved? Clearly Google is trying to do the right thing. We are trying to do the right thing. What remains to be seen is whether the H.264 are going to do the right thing and offer all their patents as required by the Open Standards Requirements (OSR) or whether Apple will do the right thing and defend, rather than attack, the open source community and its right to enjoy watching a movie on the laptop of their choice.

Simon Phipps (OSI) also has a problem with that licence and in IDG he writes:

The announcement last week at Google IO of the creation of the WebM project and the release of the VP8 codec was a positive and welcome development, finally offering an alternative for online media to the royalty-liable H.264 and to Theora. WebM arises from Google’s purchase of ON2 last year and had been widely anticipated

Google did their homework, securing endorsements from competing browser vendors Opera and Mozilla and even from Adobe (possibly in exchange for Google’s endorsement of Flash on their TV platform) and, weakly, from Microsoft. The parade is now in full swing, and we can expect many more announcements of support like the one from the Miro Project. Only Apple was painfully absent, pushing the Google-Apple tension further into the spotlight

[...]

Despite their claims that WebM was been checked for patent risks when ON2 was acquired, Google has neither made its research available nor does it offer a patent indemnity. Google has expressed extreme confidence in the patent safety of WebM, yet has failed to create a patent pool with its other endorsers and grant free and indemnified licenses to WebM contributors.

That means the path is open for those hostile to digital liberty, such as the MPEG-LA licensing cartel, to ‘tax’ VP8 users – they have already declared an intent to do so. Google should rapidly create “WebM-LA” with $0 licensing terms for those willing to commit to digital liberty.

This was also covered by The H:

According to OSI board member Simon Phipps, the VP8 codec, which Google released last week as part of the WebM project, is “not currently open source”. In a blog posting, Phipps notes that the licence used by Google has not been submitted to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for approval and that it “possibly can’t be approved”. The problem is that although the licence Google uses for VP8 is based on the Apache licence, it includes a “field of use” restriction in the patent grant section which is limited to “this implementation of VP8″.

Matthew Aslett wrote about the subject and heard back from Bruce Perens, who argued: “It really isn’t an open source license, due to an unfortunate word choice in the patent grant language, which is the main chance from the BSD-style license they started with. If you modify the VP8 implementation, you become a patent infringer.”

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5 Comments

  1. David Gerard said,

    May 26, 2010 at 6:09 am

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    It’s not OSI certified Open Source(tm) because they haven’t taken run the licence past the OSI (yet?).

    However, the Free Software Foundation happily calls it Free Software:

    http://www.fsf.org/news/free-software-foundation-statement-on-webm-and-vp8

    Trademarks and patents are of course problematic (hence Iceweasel), but don’t make free software into non-free software.

    We do need an organisation something like the OSI. It would help if whatever that organisation was would, e.g., remember its registration paperwork and not spend a large chunk of 2009 with corporate status “suspended” … but anyway.

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Yes, I noticed the FSF vs OSI situation and in the summary I wrote: “The OSI explains why Google needs to refine the licence” (we should also take quite seriously the words of Bruce Perens, who actually insisted that OSI should be Microsoft-free).

    David Gerard Reply:

    It would be good if Google considered OSI was worth running the licence past. I’m entirely unconvinced Simon Phipps’ piece (shouting at them with a misleading headline then complaining the patent grant isn’t sufficiently extensive) is going to help this happen.

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    What about Michael’s piece? Or Perens?

    David Gerard Reply:

    I suppose we’ll see if they inspire Google to bother talking to OSI.

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