And the Best Answer For Open Web Video Is …

In a virtual rematch of 18 months ago, the HTML 5 community has again stalemated on how to include video capability.  On June 29, HTML 5 Editor Ian Hickson posted on the whatwg mailing list:

After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately, on the situation regarding codecs for <video> and <audio> in HTML5, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship. I have therefore removed the two subsections in the HTML5 spec in which codecs would have been required, and have instead left the matter undefined …

An unresolveable squabble between professional boxing underdogs — unacceptably overpriced h.264 codec vs. Ogg/Theora, an open source derivative of On2’s VP3 (the predecessor to the VP6 codec in Flash)?

The Web and the world must demand a better answer.  The fundamental challenge of open video on the Web is political, not technical or legal.

Unfortunately, the industry is, politically speaking, running east looking for sunset.  Hickson has painted a grim picture of risky, slow-boat fragmentation:

Going forward, I see several (not mutually exclusive) possibilities, all of which will take several years:

1. Ogg Theora encoders continue to improve. Off-the-shelf hardware Ogg Theora decoder chips become available. Google ships support for the codec for long enough without getting sued that Apple’s concern regarding submarine patents is reduced. => Theora becomes the de facto codec for the Web.

2. The remaining H.264 baseline patents owned by companies who are not willing to license them royalty-free expire, leading to H.264 support being available without license fees. => H.264 becomes the de facto codec for the Web.

France and the color TV war

Years?  Try decades.  Lawsuits are still being filed about digital TV patents — over a specification adopted by the FCC in 1996, 13 years ago!

The world is still recovering from the patent-fueled cold-war, carve-the-world gambits of NTSC, PAL, and SECAM.  Though “[n]inety-five percent of the three systems is based on the original American patent rights”, the March 1965 France/Soviet Union accord that effectively blocked an ITU standard was hailed by the French minister of information as a “glorious day for the human race”.  Pass the freedom fries, please.

And don’t count on patent expiration — this empty hope hasn’t worked for over a century.  Like the head of telegraph monopoly Western Union argued in 1883 against government  takeover:

“Besides, the Government would labor under great embarrassments; for though the Morse patents have expired, all the best forms of telegraph instruments, batteries, and other appurtenances are protected by more recent patents, which the Government  has no more right, than any citizen or corporation, to use without the consent of the owners.” (emphasis added)

And this we’ll-just-keep-getting-new-patents gotcha was after the U.S. Supreme Court (in 1854) limited the Morse patent claims and the U.S. Congress (in 1866) granted right-of-ways on public land in exchange for regulatory control!

Indeed, patent pools never die, they just update their portfolios.

But there is a better answer than protracted proxy war of uncertain outcome.  Dust off the standards shoes and do a new royalty free standard right.

Several standards groups already have some, perhaps all, of the needed competencies — right IPR policy to support a royalty free profile or standard, technical chops, organizational charter, critical mass of industry and political support and credibility, access to sufficient resources, and willingness to go the distance.

One or more, or a joint team like the Joint Video Team formed in 2001 from ITU-T Study Group 16 (VCEG) and ISO/IEC JTC 1 SC 29 / WG 11 (MPEG) to develop h.264, could, and should, overcome shortcomings and hesitations and rise to the task.

Let’s consider some candidates:

World Wide Web Consortium.  Right IPR policy, at the epicenter of industry need, digital media experience, and thus perhaps the natural first choice of the HTML community.

At the recent Open Video Conference, representatives from Ogg, Dirac and OMS Video all publicly expressed their enthusiastic support to join and contribute to a full-fledged standardization of a royalty free codec under the umbrella of the W3C.  There might be some questions about whether Theora, or On2 themselves, would have the right to contribute from the VP3 technology based on the original limited open source license — but this is exactly the kind of issue a credible standards initiative would be able to look into and resolve.

MPEG.  There may be cracks in the death star to the royalty free community, MPEG, which undoubtedly has the technical chops but is historically perceived as reluctant to bite the well-funded hand of international patent interests.

MPEG convenor Leonardo Chiariglione, who perhaps more than anyone merits the “invented MPEG” mantle, expressed a fascinating change of heart last fall in contemplating a nomination for the “European Inventors of the Year Award”:

“I fear that the virtuous circle … whereby the reward from innovation is used to create more innovation may be coming to an end. 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.” (emphasis added)

ITU. With over 140 years of history under its belt, the ITU predates the telephone itself.  And though the h.26 series seemed at one point to be overshadowed by the ISO MPEG committee, the JVT and  h.264 have put ITU back in the codec news, albeit with a more MPEG-oriented patent pool.

China AVS.  A relative newcomer, AVS may be the only operating codec developing standards group today with a proactive IPR process (if one considers SMPTE as more a ratifying organization of VC-1 and VC-2).

ATSC, DVB.  On paper the leading digital TV standards groups, wide membership bases, responsive to government policy directives, flexible IPR policy (ATSC is flexibly not an ANSI member, which opens its IPR policy options; DVB MOU is pool-friendly, but procedurally its IPR policy is not unworkable).

Khronos.  Strong IPR policy, already standardized codec primitives in the OpenMAX layer.

SMPTE.  Standardizing the production-oriented Dirac.

No doubt there may be others, or even an insurgent standards group forming in a garage as I write.

So how to proceed?

W3C seems a natural first choice.  After that, time to heal cold war scars and address root causes.  Perhaps a new partnership between ITU and W3C, reminiscent of the JVT,  but including interested global standardization participants willing to stick to a strict royalty-free policy for the activity.


Rhonda J. Crane, The Politics of International Standards: France and the Color TV War 18, 72-73 (Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood NJ, 1979)

Dr. Norvin Green, The Government and the Telegraph, The North American Review 422, 428 (1883)

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans:  The Democratic Experience 57 (1973) (“There was hardly a major invention in the century after the Civil War which did not become a legal battlefield.”)

After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately,on the situation regarding codecs for <video> and <audio> in HTML5, I havereluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec thatall vendors are willing to implement and ship.


One response to “And the Best Answer For Open Web Video Is …”

  1. From The Register, April 13, 2010″

    Google will take a swashbuckling step towards license-free web video playback next month when it open sources the leading video codec from a company it just acquired for $124.6 million, according to a report citing multiple people familiar with the matter.

    NewTeeVee reports that Mountain View will open source On2’s VP8 codec at its Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco in mid-May. The publication also says that Google will roll the codec into its Chrome browser, and that Mozilla will do the same with Firefox.

    Google first announced its acquisition of On2 Technologies in August of last year, and at the time, the company at least hinted that it would open source the outfit’s leading codec. In both the press release and the blog post trumpeting the deal, Google said it believes “high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform” – and that On2 is a way of achieving that goal.