About Those Unencumbered Video Formats

The Free Software Foundation tells us the H.264 AVCHD video encoding standard violates the very tenets of freedom, they claim competitors such as VP8/WebM and Ogg Theora are both unencumbered and technically equal to H.264. What they really mean is that software patents are evil.

Now the MPEG LA, the body that administers the H.264 patents and a number of others has announced it’s forming a patent pool that covers VP8, proving that saying something is free doesn’t make it so. Microsoft discovered this when it tried to introduce VC-1 as an open standard (endorsed by the SMPTE, no less). Unsurprisingly, MPEG LA formed a patent pool, leaving some doubt about the legal status of the standard.

Why does this matter? Software patents are evil, of that there can be no doubt, but the FSF’s position on patents is undermining its position on open standards. MPEG LA’s motives aren’t noble, but the solution they offer to the challenge of making open standards work in a world that includes evil software patents is practical.

The FSF’s fight against H.264, on the other hand, has the practical effect of confusing a marketplace that sees the matter not as a choice between free and non-free formats, but between H.264 encoded video for HTML 5’s video tag and H.264 encoded video for Flash. Worse, the argument is pushing potential open source advocates to distance themselves from an organization that appears at its core to be anti-capitalist.

And all of this is so much more than geeky intrigue because the encoders and decoders for any given video format need to be supported not just by programmers, but entire software companies, including those that make big-name operating systems. They need the support of hardware manufacturers of everything from phones to cameras to televisions. Serious manufacturers need to design and fabricate the integrated circuits that put the spark in all those devices. Good intentions and bold statements about software freedom don’t reduce the risk these companies face in investing those resources, and we don’t get fancy toys without that investment.