Category Archives: random

The argument for Xiph codecs

Yesterday I had a random technology developer email me with the question why he should use Ogg over other codecs that have a much more widespread uptake. Of course with “Ogg” he meant “Xiph codecs”, since a comparison of container formats isn’t really what people are asking for. He felt positive towards open codecs, but didn’t really know how to express this with reason. So I wrote up some arguments that can be made for open codecs.

First of all the royalty-free character of Xiph technology makes it possible for them to be used for any application without having to consider what impact the use of the codec has on ROI and scalability of business models. It is important to have a video and audio codec available that you can just use for exchanging audio and video data
just like you can exchange text – nobody would consider paying a license for ASCII either.

Second the flexibility that you get with Xiph is important for developing new applications. One example is the development of a scheme for encrypting audio or video for DRM and then transport it inside Ogg. Since everything around Ogg is open, one can just go ahead and implement this, even if the Xiph community is not interested in such technology.

Third let’s talk about quality. Ogg Vorbis is an audio codec that is of higher quality at comparable compression rates than MP3. Ogg Theora compares well to H.261 and also to MPEG-2 video. To achieve high-quality video such as in H.264, you will need to move into Dirac territory. And yet, Xiph has more to offer: for VoIP you can currently use the highly competitive Speex codec. And a new, hybrid speech/audio codec of low delay and high compression rate with very low quality loss is CELT, the new codec developed by the author of Speex. CELT has no comparison in proprietary codecs. All of the software is available for free and in source code from svn.xiph.org and the authors are easily reachable for discussions. Should there be need for improvement, everyone has the opportunity to develop such.

Lastly, I’d like to look at the capabilities of Ogg based technology in a Web environment. Over the last years we have developed technology that is now being included by the W3C into future Web standards. This includes URL addressing to time offsets into videos, which can ultimately help develop e.g. a Web-based video editor. This includes the implementation of Ogg Theora/Vorbis as baseline video codec in Firefox for the new HTML5 video element. This includes technology for making audio and video accessible, in particular to Web search engines through deeply searchable content, but also to hearing- and visually impaired. All the base techology and specifications are available.

“Ogg” is totally the future of media technology, because the future has to be open and royalty-free to allow everybody on this planet equal rights and possibilities to participate in a media-centric Internet, and because anything else will continue to be a burden on innovation.

Patents and the bright future of open media codecs

It is clear that there is resistance by established video technology vendors to support open and patent-unencumbered media codecs over and on top of codecs that are either proprietary or are covered by a registered patent portfolio, in particular since Nokia’s attack of Ogg Theora in December 2007. The threat that is repeatedly expressed by corporates like Apple and Opera is of so-called “submarine patents”.

The 2007 Alcatel-Lucent vs. Microsoft case shows that even so-called “standard codecs”, i.e. codecs for which the patent portfolio is registered and for which you can buy a license from a consortium, are not free of such submarine patent threats.

Given this situation, the open media community is continuing to demand equal treatment for open codecs, i.e. native support in desktop media applications by vendors. Even a simple things such as making available the XiphQT components on Apple’s Quicktime Components download page would be a big step forward towards treating open codecs equally to proprietary ones.

For Web video applications, the situation becomes even more complicated. Because of their freedom from license fees, Xiph codecs would make for a perfect baseline codecs for the new HTML5 video and audio elements. But because vendors are not willing to support them on the desktop or in their browsers, the WHATWG was forced to take Ogg Theora out of the HTML5 specification. This will ultimately create many headaches for Web developers – but it will save vendors’ investment in proprietary codec technology and continue to provide a market place for a large number of media utility software whose only reason for existance is to address the complexities created by a lack of standardisation. It’s a great inhibitior of simplification in the media space and therefore an inhibitor of innovation.

Given this rather depressing situation, it is not surprising that patents have been a major topic at every FOMS workshop (2007, 2008, 2009). They stop the rare set of open media software programmers from achieving success in many different ways.

OpenMediaNow is a new initiative. Rob Savoye from OpenMediaNow attended FOMS in 2009 and explained where he wants to take it. It is best said in his own words, so here is a copy of an email that he sent me.

On Thu, Jan 22, 2009 at 11:05 PM, Rob Savoye wrote:
> Here’s a few quick notes, since I figure you need this in the morning:
>
> * Build a freely accessible database of prior art involving multimedia patents
> * Research prior-art for Ogg and Theora to ensure that these codecs remain free.
> * Build an international community of legal volunteers who can contribute research on
> international patents.
> * Work on negotiating royalty-free redistribution terms for FOSS projects
> * Work on finding the legal ways FOSS can deal with codec patents
> * If need be, craft legal workarounds for the codec patents to allow them to be
> freely redistributable
>
> Any money we raise will initially go to getting the database, forums, etc.. set up.
> After support that, we plan to hire a para-legal or two to work on the actual research.
> More than that, we’d add an engineer experienced in codecs to work with the legal
> folks to define ways FOSS can legally support proprietary codecs.
>
> – rob -

Rob is an amazing free software hacker and seems to have been around forever, so he has seen and participated in a lot of successful fights in the free world. Rob has the right connections to actually achieve the goals he has set for OpenMediaNow. He is a key member of the Free Software Foundation, which in itself has a great community to get behind these goals. He also has great connections into the law community, in particular with the EFF and groklaw. If ever I have met anyone capable of fighting and surviving this dispute, while also successfully achieving its goals, it would be Rob.

The first thing that Rob needs to create is a Website – probably in collaboration with PJ from groklaw – through which the patent research work can be undertaken. For this, he has estimated that he will require $10K. In the currently desperate global economic situation, Rob has lost some of his key financial contributors to the project.

In the spirit of “every little bit helps” and “if we give Rob moral support, he may find further financial support elsewhere”, FOMS decided to donate $1,000 towards the OpenMediaNow effort. If you consider that $1K is about 15% of the FOMS budget, it is actually quite a large contribution and it is going towards the right activity. The donation was announced on the last day at LCA with this presentation.

If you would like to also donate to the OpenMediaNow effort – be that with your skills or your money – please write to Rob (rob@www.omnow.org) (sorry for the spamming, Rob) or donate here. It may take years to address all the existing patents in the video space, unvalue some and tone down others, so don’t despair but keep supporting.