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 <>


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?


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:

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 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


[1] Resolutions, the 92nd SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-04-19/23, Dresden, Germany, SC 29/WG 11 N 11241,

“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 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,

“ 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.  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,

“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,

“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.”

Last week I encouraged Google to rethink their VP8 open sourcing patent strategy and

“do the right open standards thing — join and contribute to responsible standards groups that are working to solve the royalty-free open standards need.”

The blog was picked up in Simon Phipps’ ComputerWorld blog, ZDNet, The Register, LWN and elsewhere.

At one level, this is a classic debate about what is “open” and what should be its hierarchy of values, priorities, and even basic definitions.

But is a “de facto” standard the same as an “open” standard?  No, at least not in the definition of open standards of OpenForum Europe, of which Google is a leading member.

But there is more to consider.  Google is including WebM in the next version of Android and rules Android device makers with a strong hand, necessarily playing favorites to steer the Android ship. So the message must be clear to Android device makers, suppliers, and wannabes to get on the WebM bandwagon.  And though Google is known as tough with patent trolls, Android device makers appear to have been either left to fend off patent attacks themselves, cut deals, or perhaps be quietly aided in patent litigation defense.

All commercially rational choices in the crazy, hard-nosed, twisted global mobile patent wars.  After all, look at where the patents came from in MPEG LA subsidiary MobileMedia’s law suits against Apple, HTC, and RIM (Nokia and Sony) and HTC’s counter suit against Apple (AMD through Saxon).

So is the net-net simply “until you take open source and put it in a product you can’t get sued,” so just watch the big boys force each other to take, or cave in to, patent risks in order to get to the head of the line for a promising platform?  And just hope in the meantime that royalty-free open standards for the Open Web escape cannon fodder, collateral damage, or sell-out status in the smart phone patent wars?

Unfortunately, patent hold-up gambits thrive on adopt-first-ask-questions-later scenarios of the sort Google seems to be arm-twisting for here.  Standards groups, regulators, and industry continue to grapple with this challenge.   See yesterday’s FTC/DOJ/PTO workshop and the EU’s draft guidelines for horizontal cooperation agreements that mention that “[t]here should be no bias in favour or against royalty free standards, depending on the relative benefits of the latter compared to other alternatives”.

But if vendors ignore open standards altogether, we all lose.


According to CNET, the W3C is taking the position that WebM/VP8 needs to go through a royalty free standards process:

“WebM/VP8 has the potential of providing a solution for the baseline video format of HTML5. To be seriously considered by the W3C HTML Working Group, the specification would need to go through a standards group and be developed under RF [royalty-free] licensing participation terms,” said Philippe Le Hegaret, leader of Web video work at the W3C, in a statement. “W3C remains interested in having a video format for HTML5 that is compatible with the W3C Royalty-Free Patent Policy.”

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.


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


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.”