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Summary:

The latest indication that Apple is trying to strong-arm publishers to adopt HTML5 and H.264 came today, as Steve Jobs reportedly claimed by email that a patent pool was being assembled to “go after” Ogg Theora and other open source codecs.

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The latest indication that Apple is trying to strong-arm publishers to adopt HTML5 and H.264 came today, as Steve Jobs reportedly claimed by email that a patent pool was being assembled to “go after” Ogg Theora and other open source codecs. That news comes just a few weeks before Google is expected to release its VP8 codec as open source, and could come as a big blow to the search giant’s plans to offer an alternative to H.264.

The whole thing began today after Hugo Roy, an intern at the Free Software Foundation Europe, published an open letter to Steve Jobs. In that letter he responded to Apple CEO’s “Thoughts On Flash,” in which Jobs wrote that the future of web video would be driven by HTML5 and H.264. Roy argued against Apple’s adoption of H.264 because the codec is not open, but covered by patents and licensed by MPEG LA.

Well Jobs wrote back, warning that open source codecs like Ogg Theora may soon be taken to court for infringing on others’ patents:

“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.”

The email comes as a fight is brewing between major players over the future of web video. For Apple, that future is driven by HTML5 and H.264 encoding, in contrast to Adobe, which is pushing its proprietary Flash player for video playback. However, while most browser makers agree with HTML5 support, not everyone is fully on board with H.264 encoding.

Apple’s Safari, Microsoft’s IE9 and Google’s Chrome all support H.264 encoding for HTML5 video, but the Firefox and Opera web browsers refuse to get behind it, due to potential licensing issues. Even though H.264 licensing body MPEG LA announced in February that it was extending its royalty-free licensing for web video using H.264 through 2016, that was little consolation for Mozilla and others that are committed to supporting open standards.

Google was hoping to stem that divide by making VP8 open source and thus providing a high-quality and open alternative to existing codecs. Google’s plans to open-source the codec have been widely expected ever since it announced plans to acquire On2 in August 2009, and speculation intensified after the deal closed.

But without Apple and Microsoft on board, Google may have a tough time getting VP8 adopted by media publishers. And now that Apple’s CEO has confirmed plans for patent infringement suits against Ogg Theora and other open source codecs, Google may have even more issues to deal with.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jurvetson.

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  1. i’m an increasingly ashamed owner of three macs. if jobs and the cupertino cult spent as much time improving their product as they did locking things down then final cut would be 64 bit less mired in half solutions to old problems. in this day and age the fight to minimize compatibility is disgusting and the sooner i can move off the apple platforms the better.

    1. “the sooner i can move off the apple platforms the better.”

      Don’t let the door hit you in the a**

  2. He doesn’t say if Apple part of the patent pool. Looks like it is internal industry news, about impending patent fight over this issue.

  3. Play the Steve Jobs Flash Deathmatch Game (Afternoon Update) Friday, April 30, 2010

    [...] Apple May Be Gunning for Open Source Codecs NewTeeVee (blog) – Apr 30th – 15:07 [...]

  4. @Venkatesh is correct. To cast this as “Apple gunning” for open source codecs is link baiting, pure and simple.

    And Jobs’ point is accurate — “open source” isn’t the wonderful nirvana we all wish it could be. Just because it’s open, “open source”, or any other permutation doesn’t mean that it doesn’t tread on other’s patents, or will have hidden costs.

    Google’s move with VP8 is going to be interesting as well. Everybody is chaffing against h.264 because, theoretically, at some point in the future, the body that governs the codec could start charging. Won’t the exact same situation apply with Google’s offering too? Or are people happy being locked into a corporation’s standard, vs. a community standard, based on brand goodwill alone?

    It seems to my eyes that Apple is the only company being really honest in the whole open/closed rhetoric. Their devices are closed, but the web should be open. Everyone else — from Google to Adobe, and everyone on down — like to dress themselves in the guise of “open”, because it seems to have become a big buzzword and point of differentiation — but doesn’t really follow through.

    Adobe is completely closed. Google is getting into bed with Adobe on Android not because it’s ethically consistent, but because it’s a point of differentiation for Android. And none of Google’s core businesses are open — their search algorithms are about as proprietary as you can get.

    This is a game of political posturing between corporations, developers, and content providers. None of it seems to be focused on creating the best experience for consumers.

    1. Apple is the closest company of the bunch. Apple iTunes, Apple App Store are the most closed wall garden areas of the whole web.

      1. While you are incorrect about iTunes (at least for music; it’s DRM free and tied to no computer or platform), it is true that many of Apple’s devices are closed. They don’t hide this fact. And they are also open about where they do support open standards (the web). They are very consistent on both counts.

        Neither open nor closed are benefits unto themselves; it’s about which choice results in the best experience for users.

    2. if apple is not involved, then this reeks of FUD.

    3. Exactly, totally link bait. The discussion about whether Ogg is actually free of future patent suits or not has been going on for years. It’s lack of sufficiently-widespread adoption is likely the only thing that’s protected it thus far. There are a TON of existing patents– not by Apple — that OGG likely violates. It’s a real shame that the current patent system works as poorly as it does, but this has nothing to do with Apple gunning for anyone. Shameful sensationalism.

    4. Maybe open source “isn’t the nirvana” that it should/could be … because of idiotic, frivolous lawsuits (or threats of lawsuits) like this. Maybe the open source community is reluctant to invest large amounts of time on software that would prove its viability because of the fear of being sued.

    5. “Adobe is completely closed.”

      Oh, bullpuckey.

      http://opensource.adobe.com
      http://www.osflash.org

      It’s funny watching Apple’s paid, volunteer, and indirectly compensated PR Spin Machine in overdrive, pretending Apple is open by pointing fingers everywhere but their own tightly walled and censored garden.

      “None of it seems to be focused on creating the best experience for consumers.”

      Even sillier spin. “Consumer experience” is unrelated to the open vs. closed debate. The iPhone (a nice consumer experience) is the most tightly closed platform in the market. Q.E.D.

    6. “their search algorithms are about as proprietary as you can get”

      That’s the core of Google’s business. I wouldn’t expect them to be foolish enough to give those away and close up shop.

      I like it when companies open certain products, but they can’t all open everything and continue to have a product to sell (and continue employ people, help make the economy go ’round, etc), unless their product is corporate support and services such as Red Hat et al.

  5. Google can force the industry to adopt VP8 and HTMl5 video overnight by simply converting Youtube to whichever codec they want.

    Interesting how the whole blogosphere writes thousands of articles each time Steve Jobs sends an email.

    1. Doubtful. Youtube will continue to encode video in H.264 if for no other reason to satisfy contractual obligations with makers of set top boxes and mobile phones that already have decoding hardware, not to mention to cater to Internet Explorer which seems to have ruled out a VP8 move in the near future.

      Google doesn’t seem to be able to make big product initiatives these days, judging from Wave and Buzz.

    2. With millions of devices out there that all support h.264 decoding via hardware? Won’t be that easy.

      Plus I think Google deciding to take over web video all by themselves — no matter how they frame it — would cause more than a little outcry…

  6. Microsoft Nixes Support for VP8 — Before It’s Even Released Friday, April 30, 2010

    [...] of patents associated with open source codecs is becoming a particularly pressing issue. In an email response to an open letter arguing against Apple’s use of H.264 encoding for HTML5 video today, Steve [...]

  7. H.264 is an open standard. I have the specification in front of me. It is NOT closed and should not be referred to as such. It IS patent-encumbered and the patent holders may require a royalty, but that is completely different from something like VP8, which is currently closed (no public spec, no anything really).

    Jobs is an idiot for assuming that any video codec infringes patents – just because they can doesn’t mean that they will, and if it is indeed the case that any particular piece of code that may ever encode or decode video infringes on someone’s patents then we have a huge issue with the patent system that needs to be fixed.

    I wish sites would stop with the speculation and let Google announce whatever they are going to, then later let lawyers crawl over the patent pools and report on actual cases. At this point it seems like scaremongering by all parties, and we can really go pretty much any direction at this point.

    In summary:

    H.264 is Open
    Ogg Theora/Vorbis/FLAC/etc may or may not have patent issues
    VP8 may or may not have patent issues
    Until a concrete case or evidence are brought up STFU

    1. Maybe someone can explain to me how something is a “standard” when it is in fact not ubiquitous or officially recognized by a “Standards body.”

      If Jobs believes the web should be “open” then should that not also mean, open as in unencumbered by patents?

      This all smells like a game of semantics to me. Nothing should be adopted as a “standard” for the web unless it is truly open and free for all to use or it has proven itself by becoming ubiquitous due to use of consumers and developer, like Flash and PDF have done–no I’m NOT a fan of Flash.

      There is a good reason why Mozilla will NOT support H.264.

      1. h.264 is an ISO standard. In this case, as with many ISO standards, there are patent-encumbered portions of the standard. Thus, in order to say you comply with ISO-(insert # here), you’d have to license the patents in the countries where they’re upheld. It’s how you encourage people to contribute their ideas to standards.

      2. Thanks, I did not know it was an ISO standard.

        Here is a article talking about the MPEG-LA that seems relevant to this topic.

        http://www.osnews.com/story/23236/Why_Our_Civilization_s_Video_Art_and_Culture_is_Threatened_by_the_MPEG-LA

    2. Since Google bought the company that makes VP8, including all IP rights, Google is now in the process of making the VP8 codec open source.

      I know … old news, but some haven’t heard it yet.

    3. To add to the list:

      SWF (Flash Player binary) is open
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SWF

      ActionScript (Flash Player language) is open
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ActionScript

      And they are, together, pervasive enough to be de facto standards.

      Argue about them, rant towards their improvement, but stop flat-out lying that “Adobe is closed”.

  8. Michael Koby Friday, April 30, 2010

    The problem here is the issue of software patents. We simply shouldn’t have patents on software. In software there is ALWAYS more than 1 way to do things and if someone patents a software idea then anyone that implements the IDEA regardless of HOW they implemented it is in violation of a patent.

    This is why a lot of open source stuff is said to “violate patents” not because someone copied the code or implementation but rather the IDEA. And there in lies our problem.

    H.264 is an open standard but NOT open source (there is a difference). Ogg is open source (you can go and download the source code, implement it, and redistribute as long as you abide by the license), and thus anyone can use it and is thus not beholden to possible licensing issues that H.264 could potentially have.

    Also keep in mind that EVERYTIME someone says an open source project violates patents, that someone has never been able to prove that statement true. See Microsoft and SCO for larger examples of this. So I doubt that any “patent pool” will be successful in proving actual patent violation.

  9. So a trouble for Ogg Theora would automatically mean a trouble for VP8? Is it because the author cleverly knows that Ogg Theora is based on one of the older versions of VP8 and thinks the same infringements apply to VP8 as well? Or does the author think any codec, when open sourced automatically infringes on patents? In any case the author seems very uninformed. If google should worry about patent infringements for VP8, then it would apply whether it is open sourced or not, and is a different issue altogether.

  10. This is interesting for a number of reasons, but first to clarify a few things that have been confused:

    H.264 is an open standard. x264 is an example of an H.264 encoder that is open source. H.264 is patent-encumbered, with the licensing and royalties administered by the MPEG-LA patent pool (although there are rumors of patents on H.264 held by companies not party to the MPEG-LA pool, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms).

    It’s intriguing to me that Apple is the first to really come out and publicly threaten Ogg Theora, and VP8 by implication. I’ve often wondered what percentage of H.264 MPEG-LA royalties Apple actually gets, maybe Job’s willingness to speak out on this matter signals that Apple has a lot. In any case, it is something I wish was public.

    OTOH, one has to assume that Google did a great deal of research and due diligence prior to buying On2, so they must believe they have a case if someone sues over a royalty-free VP8.

    If nothing else, I have to think that the stronger the push by entities like Apple and Microsoft (both members of the MPEG-LA H.264 patent pool) to enshrine H.264 as part of an “open” web standard along with HTML5, then the stronger the pressure will be to keep H.264 free in licensing terms beyond 2015. If that’s the case, then the need for a patent-free VP8 becomes less important, and maybe that was part of Google’s plan all along.

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