10 Jan 2008 rillian   » (Master)

Video and Software Patents

There's an article on linux.com ostensibly about the current state of the Theora reference encoder, and ongoing efforts to improve it.

It's a strange article though. It's misleading to say "no new MPEG-4 licenses are available" when talking about codecs, when the reference is that the systems patent suite is currently unavailable during negotiations. MPEG-4 visual and AVC suites are still available under the normal terms.

And then there's a long, verbatim quote from one of the XviD developers. I'm always interested to hear the attitudes behind such projects expressed clearly, and in this case the thinking seems to be that software patents are evil, he doesn't know anything about them, so everyone should ignore the issue completely because everything potentially infringes. Wow.

There's a huge difference between vague assertions that Linux in general must be infringing hundreds of (unnamed) Microsoft patents, and a very specific list of patents considered by their holders to be required to implement a specific specification. Pretending we can't make distinctions here is just FUD.

I complained about this to a colleague and he said, "Well, it's not a rah-rah theora article, if that's what you wanted." But actually it is. After describing the patent issue as unimportant, it then goes on to say how theora is "good enough" using mp3 as an example. But the codec that's most analogous to mp3 is h.264, not Theora. They are both patented. They both feel like "good quality" at file sizes that are convenient for use. And there is a huge push on to standardize on h.264 (aka MPEG-4 AVC) as a standard codec for from hardware vendors, software vendors and the file-sharing community. If software patents don't matter, and h.264 is technically superior, why does the article recommend theora at all?

The article does acknowledge that software patents can't be ignored is some other jurisdictions (the Xvid developer lives in Germany) and I actually agree that's the reason to use theora over h.264. But it's a big reason, one that isn't going away. And while the mp3 patents start expiring in the next five years, h.264 will be encumbered for a long time to come.

The last section is spot on though. Free formats will succeed by having excellent support in all tools, not by being free. We need to improve the reference implementation, and improve tool support if we want to get somewhere.

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