I’ve been saying for a while that the best way out of the Web video codec mess is formal standardization of a royalty-free video codec and that formal standards groups like MPEG and others should step up to the task.

Of course, I mean a real, bona-fide standardization process, not a dubious rubber-stamping “ratification” nor a half-hearted kick-the-can-down-the-road affair.

Below is a draft personal response to a public call for comments by the ISO MPEG committee on issues related to standardizing a royalty-free video codec.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

(DRAFT) Response to MPEG Request for Comments
on Option-1 (Royalty-Free) Video Coding

At its October 2010 meeting, MPEG requested public comment on industry needs and performance targets for an Option-1 (royalty-free) video codec standard [1].

MPEG should enlarge its portfolio of standards by offering some that are expected to be royalty free [2], taking into account the following points:

Google has proposed ratification of its video codec VP8 as mandatory by IETF, and has stated it will remove h.264 support from Chrome:

In November, 2010, Google filed a proposed Internet-Draft, standards track document for real-time communication over the Web that states:

“In video, the VP8 codec [vp8] MUST be supported..” [3]

As to removing support of h.264 from Chrome, Google stated in January, 2011:

“Specifically, we are supporting the WebM (VP8) and Theora video codecs, and will consider adding support for other high-quality open codecs in the future. Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.” [4]

In discussing ratification of VP8 as a mandatory-to-implement specification by IETF even without a formal standardization process, the author of the Google proposed Internet-Draft has opined that making VP8 mandatory to implement is reasonable, and if IETF does not address the issue, proponents “may have to start up a third effort in some forum that’s willing to define the profile needed for interoperability” [5].

The Internet and World Wide Web are fundamentally based on royalty-free standards [6] and therefore need and expect a royalty-free video codec standard [7].

Tim Berners-Lee in an article in the Scientific American in November, 2010 restated the often-stated point that the Web’s richness, diverse user base and different (free and pay) business models require that royalty-free standards are and must be the foundation of the Web:

“The basic Web technologies that individuals and companies need to develop powerful services must be available for free, with no royalties.

… Open, royalty-free standards that are easy to use create the diverse richness of Web sites, from the big names such as Amazon, Craigslist and Wikipedia to obscure blogs written by adult hobbyists and to homegrown videos posted by teenagers.

… Openness also means you can build your own Web site or company without anyone’s approval. When the Web began, I did not have to obtain permission or pay royalties to use the Internet’s own open standards, such as the well-known transmission control protocol (TCP) and Internet protocol (IP). Similarly, the Web Consortium’s royalty-free patent policy says that the companies, universities and individuals who contribute to the development of a standard must agree they will not charge royalties to anyone who may use the standard.

… Open, royalty-free standards do not mean that a company or individual cannot devise a blog or photo-sharing program and charge you to use it. They can. And you might want to pay for it if you think it is “better” than others. The point is that open standards allow for many options, free and not.” [8]

The World Wide Web Consortium recently stated in the context of the much-watched deliberation about a royalty-free codec for the upcoming HTML5 specification:

“The W3C HTML Working Group has not identified a Royalty-Free video codec or container format that would satisfy all parties. … W3C is still highly interested in finding a solution in this space.”[9]

Looking forward, trends like cloud computing, the “Internet of devices”, and the many business models and usage scenarios thriving on the Internet all point to the continuing necessity of placing royalty-free, rather than royalty-bearing, standards at the foundation of the open Internet.

MPEG (WG11 of ISO SC29) has the competence and responsibility to standardize an Option-1 (royalty-free) video codec.

With a 20+ year history, MPEG, now has a portfolio of standards and technologies at or approaching patent expiration from which to assemble a royalty free standard. [10]

MPEG has deliberated at multiple meetings and a quorum of SC29 national bodies have expressed support [11].

The ISO/IEC/ITU patent policy provides a process framework [12], and related bodies like IETF are already moving forward with royalty-free codec standardization [13].

Recent changes in h.264 licensing have been rejected by key Internet industry leadership as inadequate to meet the need for a fully royalty-free standard [14].

As three of many examples, Web browser vendors Mozilla [15], Opera [16], and Google [4] have expressed that these new license terms from MPEG LA are unacceptable to them.

MPEG’s well-established methodology of defining a test model and evaluating improvements to it is the appropriate approach for Option-1 standardization.

MPEG has a long-established and successful work method of defining and then improving a test plan based on pre-defined, rigorous methodology [17].  This test model approach is ideally suited for Option-1, royalty-free standardization, which requires a two-step process of first defining a generic video test model of a known royalty-free foundation, then only allowing additions and modifications of known IPR source and licensing.

It would be unwise, counterproductive, and against long-established MPEG practice for MPEG to publicly set only a “hard” performance target like “a 2x coding gain, in comparison to MPEG-1” for an Option-1 (royalty-free) codec.

A narrow measure of video codec performance is a metric such as image quality (like PSNR) against bandwidth, but the practical reality is that all viable video codec standards activities must and do incorporate trade-offs of multiple features, application profiles and requirements, and platform constraints.

For example, MPEG-2 wisely did not set a hard performance target over MPEG-1; rather, MPEG-2’s core rationale [18] was specifically aimed at adding features like interlace to make the overall standard more generically useful and supportive of specific application profiles:

Rationale

…The general aim of MPEG-2 is to support a broad number of features and operating points which were not the focus of MPEG-1, and in so doing to establish an essentially generic, i.e. application independent standard, which will support a small number of key application profiles.”

Performance-related requirements were only specified as “optimized” image quality, and balanced against multiple parameters like multi-resolution scalability, transmission and storage channel-coding and error-recovery schemes, and  low coding-decoding delay:

“Requirements

MPEG-2 Video extends the capabilities of MPEG-1 with efficient methods to encode interlaced video formats. MPEG-2 Video key requirements include: optimized image quality in ranges from about 3 to 15 Mbit/s; support for various interlaced (as well as progressive) video formats; provision for multi-resolution bit-stream and decoder scalability; random accessibility to support efficient channel-hopping and editability; compatibility with both MPEG-1 and the CCITT H.261 recommendation for video telecommunications; adaptability to various transmission and storage channel-coding and error-recovery schemes; provision for low coding-decoding delay.

And the workplan required only an evaluation process to identify independently confirmable, appreciable improvements in picture quality to make improvements in a short time:

Workplan

… A video test model has been established, and several key modules in its algorithmic block diagram are subject to improvement up until March 1993.  For a proposed alternative to be selected to replace the current method, two independent experts must confirm experimentally that the proposed method yields appreciably improved picture quality.  This methodology permits MPEG’s dozens of experts from the world’s top video coding laboratories to make tremendous improvements to the state-of-the-art over a remarkably short time”

The 2001 ISO/ITU Terms of Reference for AVC and h.264 [19] did set a 50% performance target as one of 9 requirements in Annex 1, but it separately required a royalty-free baseline for which the priority requirement was to be its demonstrably royalty free IPR.  And the overall aim was limited to “offer the best possible technical performance under the practical constraints of being implementable on various platforms and for various applications enabled by the relevant ITU-T Recommendations and ISO/IEC International Standards”

Similarly, the High-Performance Video Coding activity has wisely acknowledged that optimizing performance over some ranges may produce worse performance over others [20]:

“3 Requirements

3.1 Compression Performance

A substantially greater bitrate reduction over MPEG-4 AVC High Profile is required for the target application(s); at no point of the entire bitrate range shall HVC be worse than existing standard(s).”

In sum, while performance efficiency is undoubtedly an important requirement of any viable video codec standard, requirements must include and weigh trade-offs of multiple factors.  As described above, MPEG’s long-established methodology of first establishing a test model (in this case an Option-1/royalty-free test model) and then evaluating (Option-1) improvements to it, within the constraints of multiple application and platform requirements, is the appropriate requirements methodology.

References

[1]     “Resolutions of the 94th Meeting”, ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC29 N11553, Guangzhou, CN, October 2010, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11604c.htm:

“MPEG requests that companies comment on the following topics relating to Option-1 licensable video coding:

1. The relevance of pursuing such a standards activity within MPEG, particularly with respect to current market conditions and industry needs.

2. What are the specific video codec performance targets that may be required in order to secure the desired level of market adoption? As an example, current discussions related to an Option-1 codec have considered a 2x coding gain, in comparison to MPEG-1, as a minimum performance target.”

[2]     Leonardo Chiariglione, The missed award speech, May 2008, http://www.chiariglione.org/leonardo/publications/epo2008/index.asp:

“I believe MPEG should enlarge its portfolio of standards by offering some that are expected to be royalty free and typically less performing and with less functionality next to those that are state of the art, more performing and with more functionality.

… “[F]air – reasonable – non discriminatory” used to be meaningful words when standards were designed for the needs of one industry whose members generally shared the business model according to which the standard would be used.

… I fear that the virtuous circle … whereby the reward from innovation is used to create more innovation may be coming to an end.

… [T]he problem is not “how many cents, tens of cent or euros of licensing fee is fair and reasonable” but “how can licensing be fair and reasonable without specifying a business model”.”

[3]     IETF Internet Draft, Standards Track, “Overview: Real Time Protocols for Brower-based Applications”, H. Alvestrand (Google), November 11, 2010, http://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-alvestrand-dispatch-rtcweb-protocols-00.

Section 5, Data formats, states:

“This document specifies a minimum baseline that will be supported by all implementations of this specification, and leaves further codecs to be included at the will of the implementor.

… In video, the VP8 codec [vp8] MUST be supported.” …

[4]     “HTML Video Codec Support in Chrome”, Mike Jazayeri, Google Product Manager, January 11, 2011, http://blog.chromium.org/2011/01/html-video-codec-support-in-chrome.html

[5]     January 13, 2011, Re: [dispatch] Charter proposal: The activity hitherto known as “RTC-WEB at IETF”, http://www.ietf.org/mail-archive/web/dispatch/current/msg03119.html:

“My personal thinking is that a mandatory codec is reasonable for the profile document that I tried to create in draft-alvestrand-dispatch-rtcweb-protocols, while it is not reasonable for the protocol document of draft-alvestrand-dispatch-rtcweb-datagram. But if the IETF decides that it doesn’t want to address this issue … we (the people who want interoperability of RTC-Web applications) may have to start up a third effort in some forum that’s willing to define the profile needed for interoperability”

[6]     See, for example, W3C Patent Policy, http://www.w3.org/Consortium/Patent-Policy-20040205/:

“In order to promote the widest adoption of Web standards, W3C seeks to issue Recommendations that can be implemented on a Royalty-Free (RF) basis. Subject to the conditions of this policy, W3C will not approve a Recommendation if it is aware that Essential Claims exist which are not available on Royalty-Free terms.”

[7]     For example, the Open Video Alliance, founded in 2009 by Mozilla, Kaltura, Participatory Culture Foundation, and Yale ISP, has issued five “Principles for an Open Video Ecosystem”, which clearly indicate that royalty-free open standards are the only acceptable approach for open web video standards:

“Open Standards for Video — Video standards (formats, codecs, metadata, etc.) should be open, interoperable, and royalty free”

http://openvideoalliance.org/wiki/index.php?title=Some_principles_for_open_video

[8]     Tim Berners-Lee, “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality”, Scientific American, November 22, 2010,  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=long-live-the-web

[9]     W3C HTML5 FAQ, http://www.w3.org/html/wiki/FAQs, last modified 23 November 2010:

Does HTML5 provide for Royalty-Free video and audio codecs?

Question: Since no video codec and container format have been specified yet, CPs and service providers have to prepare multiple versions of same video contents for browsers supporting different codecs and container formats with HTML5. Therefore, it would be nice to specify (mandatorily) supported codec(s) and container format(s). When do you estimate this can be done? Or is it possible that this can be done at all?

The W3C HTML Working Group has not identified a Royalty-Free video codec or container format that would satisfy all parties. There are various requirements to consider, including the W3C Royalty-Free licensing commitments and various open source projects (Mozilla, Webkit). W3C is still highly interested in finding a solution in this space. At the moment, two video codecs seem to cover all major Web browsers.

See also Jeremy Kirk, “Browser vendor squabbles cause W3C to scrap codec requirement”, Infoworld, July 2, 2009 http://infoworld.com/d/developer-world/browser-vendor-squabbles-cause-w3c-scrap-codec-requirement-974

[10]   See MPEG 20th Year Anniversary Commemoration, Tokyo, November 8, 2008, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/forum/forum2008MPEG20.html;       Hiroshi Yasuda, “MPEG Birth to Practical Use”, November 8, 2008, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/forum/forum2008MPEG20/01MPEG20_Yasuda.pdf; Cliff Reader, “Video Coding IPR Issues”, http://www.avs.org.cn/avsdoc/2003-7-30/Cliff.pdf; Cliff Reader, “History of MPEG Video Compression–Ver. 4.0,” 99 pp., document marked Dec. 16, 2003.

[11]    Resolutions, the 92nd SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-04-19/23, Dresden, Germany, SC 29/WG 11 N 11241, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11185c.htm:

“Given that there is a desire for using royalty free video coding technologies for some applications such as video distribution over the Internet, MPEG wishes to enquire of National Bodies about their willingness to commit to active participation (as defined by Section 6.2.1.4 of the JTC1 directives) in developing a Type-1 video coding standard.”

Resolutions, the 93rd SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-07-26/30, Geneva, Switzerland  [SC 29/WG 11 N 11356], http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11382c.htm:

“The Requirements group requests National Bodies and experts to provide contributions on the draft Option 1 Licensing Video Coding documents”

[12]   See Part 1, section 3 of “Guidelines for Implementation of the Common Patent Policy for ITU-T/ITU-R/ISO/IEC” (1 March 2007). The guidelines for the common patent policy encourage disclosure as early as possible by participants and third parties of any known patents or applications:

“[A]ny party participating in the work of the Organizations should, from the outset, draw their attention to any known patent or to any known pending patent application, either their own or of other organizations.

In this context, the words “from the outset” imply that such information should be disclosed as early as possible during the development of the Recommendation | Deliverable.

…  In addition to the above, any party not participating in Technical Bodies may draw  the attention of the Organizations to any known Patent, either their own and/or of any third-party.

[13]   http://tools.ietf.org/wg/codec/

[14]   See for example, “Think H.264 is Now Royalty-Free?  Think Again – and the ‘Open Source’ Defense is No Defense to MPEG-LA”, Peter Csathy, CEO Sorenson Media, Sept. 20, 2010,  http://blog.sorensonmedia.com/2010/09/think-h-264-is-now-royalty-free-think-again-and-the-open-source-defense-is-no-defense-to-mpeg-la/

It appears that many may  have been initially misinformed that MPEG-4 AVC was to become entirely royalty free, as highlighted by Peter Csathy, CEO of encoder vendor Sorenson Media:

“But, you say, MPEG LA recently announced that it will no longer charge royalties for the use of H.264. Yes, it’s true – MPEG LA recently bowed to mounting pressure from, and press surrounding, WebM and announced something that kind of sounds that way. But, I caution you to read the not-too-fine print. H.264 is royalty-free only in one limited case – for Internet video that is delivered free to end users. Read again: for (1) Internet delivery that is (2) delivered free to end users. In the words of MPEG LA’s own press release, “Products and services other than [those] continue to be royalty-bearing.”

This inspires speculation that there may be underlying and less charitable motives in play:

“MPEG LA, in fact, continues to make “noises” that even Google’s royalty free WebM gift to the world (which resulted from its acquisition of On2 and its VP8 video codec) infringes the rights of its patent holders.”

[15]   “Mozilla shrugs off ‘forever free’ H.264 codec license: Uh, will H.264 even be relevant in 4 years?”, Cade Metz, August 26, 2010, http://www.zdnet.com/blog/hardware/mozilla-unmoved-by-royalty-free-h264/9499

[16]   “Opera still won’t support H.264 video”, Jan Vermeulen, October 1, 2010, http://mybroadband.co.za/news/internet/15547-Opera-still-wont-support-H264-video.html

[17]   See for example, MPEG2 Workplan, http://mpeg.chiariglione.org/meetings/london/london_press.htm:

“For the Video work, a disciplined methodology has been established to enable experimentation on various modules of the video encoding and decoding system to proceed in parallel.  A video test model has been established, and several key modules in its algorithmic block diagram are subject to improvement up until March 1993.  For a proposed alternative to be selected to replace the current method, two independent experts must confirm experimentally that the proposed method yields appreciably improved picture quality.  This methodology permits MPEG’s dozens of experts from the world’s top video coding laboratories to make tremendous improvements to the state-of-the-art over a remarkably short time.”

[18]   MPEG-1 rationale, requirements and workplan are publicly described in MPEG Press Release, 20th  Meeting, Nov. 6, 1992, http://mpeg.chiariglione.org/meetings/london/london_press.htm

[19]   “Terms of Reference for a Joint Project between ITU-T Q.6/SG16 and ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29/WG11 for the Development of new Video Coding Recommendation and International Standard”, ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29/WG 11 N4400, December 2001,  http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/29w12911jvt.pdf

[20]   “Vision, Applications and Requirements for High-Performance Video Coding (HVC)”, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC29/WG11/N11096, January 2010, Kyoto, JP, http://mpeg.chiariglione.org/working_documents/explorations/hvc/HVC_VR.zip

As readers of this blog know, I am a long-time proponent of royalty-free standardization as the best option for open Web media, preferable to informal, vendor-run open-sourcing of undocumented or unreviewed Intellectual Property Rights.

MPEG, an ISO working group (WG 11 of ISO/IEC JTC 1 / SC 29, to be precise), has been looking into royalty-free standardization and has issued a resolution soliciting interest in active participation by the relevant voting units (“National Bodies”).  Here is my manifesto on why a new dual-track standards activity in ISO could succeed where the 2001 h.264 royalty-free baseline failed.

So I forwarded the resolution to Steve Jobs (Apple has been a long-standing member of the MPEG committee), soliciting Apple’s support.

His response — “The problem is that it will have lower quality video…” — is in my view an accurate and reasonable conclusion and one shared by others, including the head of MPEG, who has said “I believe MPEG should enlarge its portfolio of standards by offering some that are expected to be royalty free and typically less performing and with less functionality next to those that are state of the art, more performing and with more functionality”.

Judge for yourself (no, no response to my second email):

——– Original Message ——–

Subject: Re: Please help develop a royalty-free ISO video standard
Date: Tue, 01 Jun 2010 11:21:28 -0700
From: Rob Glidden <rob.glidden@xxx.xx>
To: Steve Jobs <sjobs@apple.com>

Steve:

Same quality at ~20% more bandwidth looks patent-safe today, so not a direct replacement for h.264.

Rather, a viable HTML5 solution, because World Wide Web Consortium, vendors, and community require codec to be royalty free AND standardized (not just open sourced).

Would Apple support ISO starting standardization process for HTML5-type uses?

Rob

On 6/1/2010 10:03 AM, Steve Jobs wrote:

The problem is that it will have lower quality video…

On Jun 1, 2010, at 9:33 AM, Rob Glidden wrote:
Steve:

I am writing to encourage Apple to actively participate in developing an ISO-approved royalty-free video coding standard.

The MPEG group has issued a resolution seeking active participation in developing a Type-1 (royalty-free) video coding standard:

“Given that there is a desire for using royalty free video coding technologies for some applications such as video distribution over the Internet, MPEG wishes to enquire of National Bodies about their willingness to commit to active participation (as defined by Section 6.2.1.4 of the JTC1 directives) in developing a Type-1 video coding standard. MPEG would appreciate if NBs provide the names of individual organisations that will commit resources”

Type-1 (royalty-free) licensing has been considered at recent MPEG meetings, and multiple National Bodies have expressed their support.

ISO procedure requires active participation by individual organizations to move the activity through the ISO standards process.

Please contact your ISO / SC 29 National Body and express your support for this important standards initiative.

Kind regards

Rob Glidden


References

[1] Resolutions, the 92nd SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-04-19/23, Dresden, Germany, SC 29/WG 11 N 11241, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11185c.htm:

“Given that there is a desire for using royalty free video coding technologies for some applications such as video distribution over the Internet, MPEG wishes to enquire of National Bodies about their willingness to commit to active participation (as defined by Section 6.2.1.4 of the JTC1 directives) in developing a Type-1 video coding standard. MPEG would appreciate if NBs provide the names of individual organisations that will commit resources. MPEG will use the information gathered from the NB responses, particularly including the number of countries willing to actively participate, in order to decide at the Geneva meeting whether to request approval of a new Work Item Proposal. MPEG does not intend to reopen the issue, unless strong support of at least five national bodies is presented in the future.”

[2] ISO/IEC JTC 1 Directives, 5th Edition, Version 3.0 ISO/IEC JTC 1 N8557, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/directives.pdf:

“9.3.1.1 Votes on NPs at the SC Level

… For the ballot to be successful at the SC level, the NP shall be supported by a majority of all P-members of the SC with at least five P-members committed to active participation.

6.2.1.4  Active participation for NPs includes involvement by NBs in more than one of the following:

– Attendance at meetings (see also 7.11);
– Contributing to the development of the WD;
– Performing substantial review on a CD and subsequent stages;
– Submitting detailed comment with ballots.”

[3] Meeting Report, the 91st SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-01-18/22, Kyoto, Japan, SC 29/WG 11 N 11077, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11151c.htm:

“Royalty-free Codecs

In order to help with the discussion on royalty-free codecs, several National Bodies provided input as requested in N11066 Call for Comments on Possible Future activities on “Royalty-free” Standardization by MPEG. MPEG thanks with N11222 Responses to NB position statements on N1066. No clear conclusions could be drawn from the diverse responses. Furthermore, neither MPEG nor ISO can guarantee that a standard developed with the goal of being RAND or royalty-free will actually be RAND or royalty-free since the analysis of patents is outside of the scope and competence of ISO and MPEG.

MPEG issued document N11221 Possible future actions on standardization with Type 1 licensing where the legal issues are summarized and discussed. Type 1 licensing refers to option 1 of the joint patent declaration form, where an intellectual property holder can indicate that he will not charge for his IP. Laymen refer to this type of licensing as royalty-free.

However, MPEG believes that 20 years after its publication some technology will become royalty-free. Since parts of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 were published in 2013 and 2014, candidates are a MPEG-2 Part 2 baseline profile carved out of MPEG-2 Part 2, MPEG-1 Part 3 Layer 2 baseline profile carved out of the MPEG-1 part 3 Layer 2, a MPEG-1 Part 3 Layer 3 baseline profile carved out of the MPEG-1 part 3 Layer 3, and a MPEG-2 Part 1 baseline profile carved out of the MPEG-2 part 1. These candidates would be compatible with existing equipment. Alternatively, MPEG may define a new set of standards which are believed to be RF provided such standards provide sufficient differentiation to be successful in the market place.

[4] Meeting Report, the 90th SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2009-10-26/30, Xian, China, SC 29/WG 11 N 10876, http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n10944c.htm:

“Royalty-free Codecs

The Chinese National Body encouraged MPEG to discuss the option of royalty-free codecs developed within MPEG (N11065 Responses to CNNB position statement on more friendly IPR policy). Especially small companies perceive licensing as cumbersome. Some royalty free standards have become successful in the market place.

MPEG might consider royalty-free codecs only as a supplement to its current standards development process. The preliminary results of the discussion are summarized in N11067 Summary of Issues and question from the 90th MPEG Meeting in connection with CNNB input document (M16903). In order to help with this discussion, MPEG requests National Bodies to provide input according to N11066 Call for Comments on Possible Future activities on “Royalty-free” Standardization by MPEG.”


Much of the initial commentary on Google’s open sourcing of the VP8 codec it acquired in purchasing On2 has breathlessly, and uncritically, centered on the purported game-changing impact of the move.

But unfortunately, these commentaries miss an essential point that Google has studiously avoided mentioning the need to standardize royalty free codecs (not just release an open source snapshot).

But since forward motion is good simply because it is forward motion, shouldn’t one hesitate to look this gift horse in the mouth?

Unfortunately, in the case of multimedia codecs and technologies, ignoring open standards and instead presenting open sourcing as a fait accompli solution just works to the detriment of the entire open community.

The open Web needs royalty free standards (true, multi-stakeholder run standards, not unilateral actions) — that is its essential genius.  And without them, proprietary, vendor-controlled projects, even those that self-label as “open”, do little good and more likely more harm than good.  We all have the right to expect, and demand, that the Web’s current beneficiaries and leaders stay true to this fundamental open standards proposition, and not just forget it when convenient.  And this includes Google.

It is well known that many experts consider it now feasible to standardize serviceable royalty-free codecs.  MPEG (the standards group, not the unaffiliated license administrator MPEG LA) has even put out a resolution to that effect, and IETF has recently launched a royalty free codec activity in a similar spirit.  Google should get on board on this important trend, not undermine it with studied avoidance.  So far they have not.

It is important to understand that patent claims are typically handled under confidential non-disclosure agreements.  So unless there is a forcing function (litigation or standardization-required disclosure and review), there is no effective way to know who is actually claiming, and who is paying, what.  And there are documented cases of this going on for literally years.  So leaving VP8 code out in the open with nothing but a mutual non-assert license leaves the patent issue not only unaddressed, but up for capture by those with uncharitable agendas, and on their turf and time frame (let’s at least hope that’s sooner rather than later — but remember, forming patent pools rarely disclose all their patents up front).

Not a smart move, and hopefully one Google will realize the error of and correct quickly (here’s a useful cover story: we intended to smoke out patent holders all along, and we were going to get around to working with standards groups when we had the chance).  Contributing VP8 to a standards group with a strong patent disclosure policy would be a good corrective move; it would force lurking patent holders to come fully into the public. Not perfect, but a step forward.

Google’s open sourcing of VP8 is very different from Sun’s Open Media Stack codec work, and for that matter other responsible open video initiatives, which have based their work on identifiable IPR foundations, documented their patent strategy, and have been willing to work with bona-fide standards groups to address and resolve IPR issues.  When companies like Google ignore standards and go on their own in such important areas as video codec standards, they just undermine the very standards groups the open Web needs to thrive and grow.

We’d never accept a brand name company unilaterally declaring control of the next version of TCP/IP, HTML, or any other of a host of foundational Internet and Web standards simply by open sourcing something they’d bought.  Codecs will also be such a foundational component, a critically important one.  Just because the technology of codecs might be less familiar than some other technologies is no reason to abandon the royalty-free standardization philosophy that has built the Web.

Certainly not based on the complete feel-good-marketing non-explanation for this radical abandonment that Google has offered so far.   Because patent pool licensing is out of control?  No argument about that from me (or antitrust complainants Nero, VIZIO, and others).  Because Google “must have done its patent homework”?  OK, if so why not hand that homework in as a contribution to a standards group where it could get some expert scrutiny?

So I would encourage Google to do the right open standards thing — join and contribute to responsible standards groups that are working to solve the royalty-free open standards need.  Be a part of the royalty-free, open-standards solution, not part of the problem.

UPDATE

Tip of the hat to Xiph’s leader, Chris Montgomery, for good tongue-in-cheek humor:

I, FOR ONE, WELCOME OUR NEW WEBM OVERLORDS

Not to confuse: Xiph is wholeheartedly supporting WebM, but another interesting remark by Montgomery:

“But Monty isn’t worried about the MPEG-LA suing him or anyone at the WebM Project.

“The recent saber-rattling by Jobs felt more like a message to his own troops than
a warning shot to ours,” he says. “MPEG itself has always has an internal contingent
that has pushed hard for royalty-free baselines from MPEG, and the missives about
video codecs and patents were probably meant for them, not us.”

Last August I questioned if the BBC-led hybrid DTV Project Canvas was “seduced by the cynical allure of a semi-open ‘standards-based open environment‘” .

Many kudos to the DTG — the lead UK DTV standards group — who today released its tough-love “parallel process” criticism in the BBC Trust oversight consultation.

To wit:  “it is unreasonable for the Canvas JV to claim that they have fully engaged with industry” while running “a parallel process” operated “separately from, and regardless of,” the DTG’s own standards work, with “lack of clarity over the IPR status”.

The BBC Trust should heed the words that “only a mandatory requirement for the Canvas JV to engage with industry to deliver an agreed specification can achieve widespread market success”.

Hang in there, DTG, there’s standards-bashing hiding by behind pragmatic waffling on this side of the pond too.

But to respin a Churchillian quip:  standards are the worst form of industry governance, except for all the rest.

References

http://robglidden.dev/2009/08/trust-but-verify-ipr-bbc-project-canvas/

So why shouldn’t Project Canvas also be built on royalty-free standards, advancing rather than opposing the thrust of the Open Internet and World Wide Web that has enabled the Project Canvas opportunity in the first place?

Is the BBC slipping unthinkingly into a common parlance of the day – seduced by the cynical allure of a semi-open “standards-based open environment” — open enough to help me, closed enough to hurt my competitors, with vendor complicity bought by the potential competitive advantage of conveniently under-disclosed patent royalties or other control points?

This is an under-addressed question that the BBC Executive, BBC Trust and proposed joint venture have skirted so far in this consultation, and should be fully addressed before proceeding.  A Free-To-View TV Internet is both a TV and a network stewardship.

http://dtg.org.uk/publications/responses/DTG_Canvas_Prov_Con_Resp_Final.pdf

[F]eedback from our membership indicates that there remains widespread concern in the industry that there is a parallel process in place – with a Canvas specification being developed between the Canvas JV and its innovation partners separately from, and regardless of, the DTG’s Connected TV specification work.
..
Without the release of these documents we believe it is unreasonable for the Canvas JV to claim that they have fully engaged with industry via the DTG. The failure by the BBC or the Canvas JV to release this documentation to the DTG has severely impacted upon the ability of the DTG’s Connected TV Working Groups to deliver a Connected TV specification in a timely manner.

DTG members have voiced concern that there is a lack of clarity over the IPR status of Canvas technical documentation. As a result, the DTG’s membership believes that the Trust should make approval of the BBC Executive’s Canvas proposal conditional on the clarification of the precise IPR position of the Canvas commercial requirements, technical documentation and specification.

Feedback we have received from our membership indicates that the consensus among our members is that only a mandatory requirement for the Canvas JV to engage with industry to deliver an agreed specification can achieve widespread market success and represent the best interests of the UK consumers and TV Licence Fee payers.

After a lively debate, the IETF appears to be moving forward with a royalty-free audio codec standardization activity.  Here’s to its successful launch and positive outcome.

I’ve put a brief summary at the mpegrf.com site, and there is a good summary here.

The group’s email discussion alias is here — and my view, expressed there (echoing this), is pretty straightforward:

[codec] Royalty Free codec standards — don’t settle for less”

Here is my view, perhaps you share it, perhaps you don’t.

What the world needs now is royalty-free, standardized codecs. This is critical to the future of the Web, and the progress the Internet has brought to the world, and will bring to the world.

Video, audio, transport, the whole thing. Evaluated, vetted for patents. Under an appropriate, responsible and complete royalty free process. No less.

IETF, ITU, and ISO/MPEG should all get going on this important activity — after all why shouldn’t all of these organizations include this as core to their mission.

I have, and no doubt you have too, seen countless explanations why this should not, could not, will not, rather not, might not, or can not happen. Some well meaning and sincere, some from vested interests.

There are too many “powerful” interests against it. “Important” commercial interests are ambivalent. It is too hard “legally” or “politically” or “technically”. It is just too confusing to think through. There is no longer a critical mass that cares enough about keeping the future of the Open Internet open and royalty free. The well meaning are ignorant, or naive. Etc.

Don’t settle. Take the issue of royalty free, standardized codecs all the way to the top of these organizations. Do what it takes. If it requires new organizations, start them. It it requires revised processes, revise them. This is the spirit that built the Web and the Internet, this is the spirit that is its lifeblood, and this is the spirit that needs to be at the heart of its future.

Don’t settle. Don’t let those who have tried hard already, or have only half-heartedly tried, justify the status quo or their half-heartedness. Encourage them to focus on how to take the next steps.

Don’t let convenient “interpretations” of standards processes be an excuse for never starting, never finishing, or never setting up processes that will work. Need more legal background? Find it. More technical information? Get it.

Don’t settle. The world has plenty of patent-encumbered media standards, plenty of proprietary solutions, and plenty of standards in other domains that have figured out how to deliver royalty free.

But the world does not have enough royalty-free codec standards, so this is the task that needs to be addressed.

Rob

Here is my view, perhaps you share it, perhaps you don't.

What the world needs now is royalty-free, standardized codecs. This is critical to the future of the Web, and the progress the Internet has brought to the world, and will bring to the world. Video, audio, transport, the whole thing. Evaluated, vetted for patents. Under an appropriate, responsible and complete royalty free process. No less. IETF, ITU, and ISO/MPEG should all get going on this important activity -- after all why shouldn't all of these organizations include this as core to their mission. I have, and no doubt you have too, seen countless explanations why this should not, could not, will not, rather not, might not, or can not happen. Some well meaning and sincere, some from vested interests. There are too many "powerful" interests against it. "Important" commercial interests are ambivalent. It is too hard "legally" or "politically" or "technically". It is just too confusing to think through. There is no longer a critical mass that cares enough about keeping the future of the Open Internet open and royalty free. The well meaning are ignorant, or naive. Etc. Don't settle. Take the issue of royalty free, standardized codecs all the way to the top of these organizations. Do what it takes. If it requires new organizations, start them. It it requires revised processes, revise them. This is the spirit that built the Web and the Internet, this is the spirit that is its lifeblood, and this is the spirit that needs to be at the heart of its future. Don't settle. Don't let those who have tried hard already, or have only half-heartedly tried, justify the status quo or their half-heartedness. Encourage them to focus on how to take the next steps. Don't let convenient "interpretations" of standards processes be an excuse for never starting, never finishing, or never setting up processes that will work. Need more legal background? Find it. More technical information? Get it. Don't settle. The world has plenty of patent-encumbered media standards, plenty of proprietary solutions, and plenty of standards in other domains that have figured out how to deliver royalty free. But the world does not have enough royalty-free codec standards, so this is the task that needs to be addressed.

Rob