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:
“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.”