Occasions like these make me want to celebrate. As a strong Ogg/Theora supporter, due to its irrevocable and patent unencumbered license, I’m happy to announce that it may soon be deprecated. Big brother VP8 has been open sourced!
Theora video codec, maintained by Xiph.org, was originally based on the proprietary VP3, which was released to the public by On2 Technologies in 2001. Alongside this, Xiph has been maintaining the Vorbis audio codec as well as the Ogg container format (and Speex and FLAC…). This, together with their Icecast streaming, a whole suite of totally Free software has been available for media streaming and storage.
Vorbis has long been (and still is!) a very important part of the Free media climate. Battling the technically inferior, patented and Fraunhofer owned MP3 format, it hasn’t reached the same industrial applications. Few hardware media players support Vorbis due to a previous lack of low-power integrated circuits, which is probably caused due to a fear of Free software. Consequently few applications bother marketing their “Vorbis support”, even though applications like Spotify uses this format for streaming.
The [street-smart] people at MPEG-LA have made sure that from the moment we use a camera or camcorder to shoot an mpeg2 (e.g. HDV cams) or h.264 video (e.g. digicams, HD dSLRs, AVCHD cams), we owe them royalties, even if the final video distributed was not encoded using their codecs! Let me show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The debate regarding software patents, licensing and such is very interesting and – as with most intellectual property laws – incriminates entire populations. Had Spotify not used Ogg/Vorbis, they’d probably end up with MP3. Which would cause them to have to pay licensing for every copy of Spotify.exe and most likely also the software used to encode all that 500TiB (I’ve overheard) of audio data lying on their servers. This means that you, the user, wouldn’t have your precious kakka.
Technically inferior, Theora would not be able to stand a chance in the long run against x264 (free software, but “illegally” implemented algorithm). “Quality” goes before principles, and FUD is always in the air. Now that Google swallowed On2 Technologies, however, and released the VP8 codec to the public, the quality specifications are on a par and a strong company is backing the patents. It’s an unfortunate requirement caused solely by patent laws (in certain countries).
VP8 video, Vorbis audio and the Matroska container – all Free software and none of them patent infringing – are being combined as we speak. This is the evolution – or rather cross breeding – of the best common media tools around. It far-off beats any proprietary solution and what we’re all waiting for is getting it into our software. But we’re not far off – VideoLAN VLC has already implemented it in 1.1.0-RC1.
Viva la revolución!
However, since I started writing this post I’ve found disturbing links regarding a plan to blow FUD all over VP8. The MPEG-LA (who’s holding the patent pools for MPEG-4/H.264 implementations etc.) are threatening Google. Locking down culture, mostly due to software patent laws in the US. Causing the global market to be unable to distribute legal copies of software and hardware, holding back development and financing legal departments. Fortunately, Google – at least in this case – does not do evil:
Second, Google has a lot more resources than Xiph.org — the group that controls Theora — does, and won’t be going down without a fight. It spent more than $120 million to purchase On2 and its technology, and wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t committed to making VP8 open source. Not only that, but the search giant said it’s done its due diligence and is confident that VP8 doesn’t infringe on others’ patents.
But what’s all this software patent jibberish?
Everything a computer does – from typing to gaming to playing audio and video and actually calculating – are mathematical operations. Exactly the same things that you learn in school, which the old Arabs and Greeks had hell-a fun with drawing circles in the sand etc. It is ancient theory – a knowledge which has slowly evolved collectively among mankind. No one can own mathematics.
Look at it this way: What if someone owned the mathematical operation modulo? Then for every sensible encryption scheme that has been implemented, royalties would have to be payed. And you wouldn’t be allowed to teach it in schools. And given you don’t know what modulo does, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to link it on Wikipedia. Even though it is simply a by-product of a simple calculation (division in this case). Which is exactly what a video codec is – the result of mathematical calculations. An algorithm.