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 ( (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.

3 thoughts on “Patents and the bright future of open media codecs

  1. With all due respect to Rob, I do not see how his idea can resolve the problem of companies claiming “submarine patents!!” whenever the topic of Ogg Theora is brought up. Patents are filed by each individual country, so creating a database would have to incorporate every single country and examine prior art on a case by case basis. In the end, will we be at a point any further than we are now, where the W3C would recommend (not mandate) Ogg Theora for the video tag and where Firefox, Opera, and Safari distribute Theora playback, yet corporate entities defy open standards to prop up their own invested interests in video codecs? I think such a database would not solve anything. What we need is a grassroots movement to put Ogg Theora video online using the tag, and the corporate entities will be compelled to follow once they see the emerging market. Let’s not seek permission to do what we know is right.

    1. Hi Matthew. I’m glad you’re voicing this issue, because I think many people will have the same opinion. However, I can see Rob’s approach useful in two ways:

      First of all he will make sure to expose all known patents that may be regarded as submarine patents to Theora (or Dirac, or even OMS). The problem is not that these patents are not known. The problem is that nobody wants to point their fingers at them for fear of waking up sleeping beasts. But if it is done in the right way and any potential claims are refuted by a multitude of lawyers before a claim can even be raised, then this will help attack fears.

      Secondly, Rob is not just looking at open codecs. He is also looking at the longer history of patents in video (and possibly audio) coding and expose patents that are claimed on licensed technology but which are invalid because of prior art. In this way, it may be possible to turn some of the existing proprietary codecs into open codecs.

      Lastly I should mention that an open collection of evaluated patents and prior art in media will be of tremendous value towards creating new codecs, which can then more easily avoid patent traps and more easily claim patent-freedom from the start of their existence.

      Yes, it is an enormous effort, and yes, we can never be sure that it is fully done and that all submarine patents have been found. But if we regard the topic of SCO and the complexity of that case and the involvement of lawyers with it, I think there is a large chance that Rob can achieve the task.

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