The mighty Google has just announced the WebM Project, which delivers an open source (i.e. non-proprietary) video standard for the Web which will allow people to embed and view any kind of video content without worrying about patent lawyers, licenses and all that sort of stuff. The eventual idea is to have a <video> tag, just like <html>, which will let anyone embed a video clip in a web page free from licensing or patent restrictions.
What, you didn’t realise that video on the web at the moment is completely bound up by patents and licenses? Yeah most of us didn’t, until the future of web video started to hit the news recently. Adobe’s Flash, MPEG and even the supposedly ‘open’ H.264 technologies are all owned and licensed by mega-corps or groups of companies, which means that, just like the supposedly free MP3 audio format, people have to pay licenses to use them for commercial purposes.
Bet you didn’t realise that your sparkly new digital camera or camcorder has a license term buried in the fine print which states that using it for commercial recording requires a license. Here’s the license from a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera, buried on page 241 of a 260 page user manual.
Now, the rights holders of the H.264/MPEG tech (called MPEG-LA) which is the format used by most cameras and camcorders argue that they have no intention of asking people for money, but that’s not the point. The mere fact that the license exists means that it could be enforced at some point in the future, otherwise why does it exist at all? This stuff sucks hugely, just imagine if Tim Berners-Lee had patented HTML and we all had to pay a license fee to create a web page, or even to read one.
The upshot is we really need to keep the Web open and away from the money grabbing hands of the big companies, in whatever form they attack. Giving us ‘free use’ of a format or technology is not enough, and that’s really at the hub of the issue. Adobe still owns Flash, MPEG-LA owns most video patents and Fraunhofer owns MP3 and so on. And don’t think they won’t sue to protect their rights, already this year an MPEG-LA subsiduary has started suing smartphone makers. Greed is a horrible thing, and it’s really time to set this kind of stuff free.
Incidentally this is another reason I find Apple’s attitude so worrying, if not downright sinister. It also owns a bunch of patents (and is a member of MPEG-LA) and seems to be intent on driving the world towards a proprietary future, where the rights holders can dictate to us as users what we can and cannot do with the technology we buy. That may be fair game if you’re a hardware patent holder (?), but when used without restraint in the online world, it endangers the openness of the Web significantly.
Anyway, the upshot is that this latest move by Google could drive innovation forward considerably in the online multimedia arena, which is a Great Thing. Of course, the story is not finished yet, and there’s a lot more that needs doing to keep the Web unshackled and open, but hopefully this is one area which is moving in the right direction.
Though video is also now core to the web experience, there is unfortunately no open and free video format that is on par with the leading commercial choices. To that end, we are excited to introduce WebM, a broadly-backed community effort to develop a world-class media format for the open web.