Blog Post

Apple May Be Gunning for Open Source Codecs

The latest indication that Apple (s AAPL) 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 (s GOOG) 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 (s ADBE), 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 (s MSFT) 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.

Related content on GigaOM Pro: What Does the Future Hold For Browsers? (subscription required)

56 Responses to “Apple May Be Gunning for Open Source Codecs”

  1. Anonymous

    I’m a consumer, and having patented codecs like h264 is not the best experience for me. I should be able to support the applications/platforms I like without Jobs forcing me to use theirs.

    If Jobs was actually gunning for Open Source codecs and actually thought about what caused what then he would be supporting Theora. Besides, up until now every Mactard justifies every lock-in as caring about the “user experience”. I’ll tell you what, ACTUALLY learn about user experience if you going to go on about it so much.

    It doesn’t mean that Jobs is gunning for Open Source codecs, he just wants to add more weight to his argument against Open Source.

    Hopefully if h264 does win, x264 will be able to replace it.

    Using non-free codecs suppresses Linux and keeps people in the world of OS X.

  2. This writer should be fired simply for sheer stupidity. I’m writing to the NYT and ask that they remove gigaom from their technology page. It ought to be an embarrassment to them to have these idiots linked to. This is like writing a story with the headline “Obama plans to start nuclear war” because he gave a speech on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Gigamorons is more like it.

  3. Poorly written article – do journalism next time. Who’s in this patent pool? Is this led by Apple? Are they even a part of it or is it merely something they’re aware of? If you’re going to write something, answer the obvious questions. As it is, you’ve merely fed Apple hate and some of your more credulous commenters have taken it.

    Do better.

  4. TobyS

    I see, Mr. Thompson, you are selective about your punishment. I’m reading it as “I can’t find or stand the Lemote Yeelong netbook which is 100% free. I want to be outraged, but still hedge my bets when I want to play a game or use Office. I’ll just take it out on the software makers.” Do you take only non-patened medications? How about transportation – just walk or use some Chinese bike I haven’t heard of? Eat any foods that isn’t grown in your back yard? Listen to music? Sony, Victor, and Dolby are H.264 patent pool holders. Hope you don’t watch HBO, their feed to broadcasters are native H.264.

    See there are many compromises you and I make every day that is made possible by patents. Are some of these software patents bad, sure, the MS linked list one is. What do you mean, “best for consumers”? Consumers get a single codec that they are protected from suits and can view on a Uverse box, PC, phone, iDevice.

    I’m not sure if anyone with this outrage understands what the patent pool is for. Before this, guys like the Fraunhofer guys would go after everyone if they even tried to do any type of video compression. The device makers, Sony, LG, MS, etc wanted to move consumer video forward. A “Standard” which to the group members was free from suit from each other. The patent pool is skin in the game – all guns pointed to the center of circle so no one shoots first. It isn’t to rule the world or screw the consumer. It is more like a UN of AV compression, we hate each other, but in this to keep the peace.

    Finally, if there is any traction for VP8, the guys are going to come knocking. The MPEG-LA group is going to look like safe harbor for anyone that uses it.

  5. Reggie Thompson

    TobyS, I can’t control the hardware selection, but I almost certainly can control the software I use, and that means no more OS X.

  6. Reggie Thompson

    Well that pretty much does it for me, when this MacBook needs to be replaced, it will be replaced with a PC laptop running Ubuntu. I stood behind Apple (and Jobs in particular) for years because I thought they were being unfairly maligned, but at this point they have become everything I used to hate about Microsoft. Seriously, Steve, you may want to rethink your approach to pushing for “open” standards. Just because something is labelled “open” by a bunch of patent holding companies doesn’t mean it is right, or what is best for consumers.

  7. TobyS

    I took the linkbait. Frankly, I’m disappointed in GigaOm to linking to this. I go there for tech news that is written by adults. I’m thinking the gadget blogs wouldn’t touch this as this is just to flame the haters. If you try to do a quick search on the MPEG-LA, you will see that Apple has 1 (one) patent in the pool. Microsoft has several pages, LG has a ton, the Fraunhofer group has many. So, I am to assume that Apple is the ring leader and is the only one in this pool that is going after Theora. Hey Ryan Lawler, if you want to play journalist, maybe you should try doing some of it. Who is leading this? Is MS for it, LG, Fujitsu. Did you try to contact them? I think I know the answer. BTW, if anyone remembers the early days of these fights, my bet is on the Fraunhofer group. Man, those guys don’t mess around, have a ton of patents, really did invent this type of software, and is the big reason these pools exist.

    For those who are dumping their Macs because of this silly “article”. One request, on your next computer, open it up and make sure it doesn’t contain any component from Microsoft, Toshiba, LG, Philips, et al. Stick to your guns and take it back if it does. You will be reduced to using that netbook Stallman uses. Good luck.

  8. Two major corrections, one for the article, one for commenters:

    The MPEC-LA already charges for H.264. You paid royalties on your Blu-ray player, and your camera. For the web, browsers have to pay royalties, encoders have to pay royalties. Web sites that charge for subscriptions need to pay if their content is longer than 12 minutes.

    The 5 year delay on licensing applies only to the delivery of web video for free, personal, non-commercial usage but the article makes it seem much wider.

    Just to underline this point, if Mozilla or Opera played H.264 they would be paying over 5 million dollars a year, as well as in Mozilla’s case, unable to pass that license onto other Mozilla-based projects just as Google can’t provide H.264 in their open source Chromium, only in Chrome.

    Those supporting H.264 have almost certainly already reached their yearly fee cap for decoders that they were already shipping, so it costs them nothing and disadvantages smaller competitors.

    H.264 is not an Open Standard. Just because you can read something doesn’t make it an Open Standard, just as being able to read the code doesn’t make it Open Source. “Open Standard” means “no patent royalties” as defined by the W3C, EU and a bunch of other relevant parties, if you don’t like that definition then don’t use it, say H.264 is a royalty bearing standard, or a RAND standard, or an old-fashioned standard, or just a standard.

    Don’t use a specific term used to promote a certain type of standard to justify (and whitewash) your use of something that doesn’t meet that standard (see what I did there?).

      • Ishayu

        You’re doing a great deal of flaming on people who finds Apple’s current business model unattractive and potentially dangerous, laughing at them as you go.

        Please stop.

        There’s a difference between paying for and appreciating the work of programmers (which can be secured with a simple EULA) and patents.
        Software patents don’t really add anything to profits for a company and are completely unnecessary, if not for protecting yourself against others’ patents.

        Imagine if Google had patented “Sorting search results by relevance”. Where would the world had been today?

    • Matthew Frederick

      It may not be as easy as simply coding around, both because (a) there are so many video patents it’s ridiculous, and (b) if the encoding and decoding are already built into the OSes of jillions of devices (most especially if there’s hardware decoding like there is with H.264 on many devices), it’s a big deal to get the changes out everywhere. In the meantime the manufacturers may well be dealing with lawsuits.

      And the lack of patents being brought to light is easily explained away in that nobody’s making any real money off of it. Patents aren’t like trademarks, you can selectively enforce patents all you want.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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

    • 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.

    • parnote

      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.

  13. 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.

    • 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.

    • RidleyGriff

      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…

  14. RidleyGriff

    @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.

      • RidleyGriff

        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.

    • Matthew Frederick

      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.

    • parnote

      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.

    • Threbo

      “Adobe is completely closed.”

      Oh, bullpuckey.

      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.

    • no_treble

      “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.

  15. 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.