H264 vs Theora – a Lesson from History.

It’s vital to note that the two companies pushing the hardest to promote H264 rather than the open-format Ogg/Theora as the video codec of choice for HTML5 is Microsoft and Apple – both of which are members of the MPEG-LA consortium – which holds the patents on H264 and has already outright threatened to demand royalties from users who use the format – while actively pushing it on devices and in browsers.

The general public have barely noticed, as sadly they usually don’t. Somehow, they just don’t believe that anybody will demand money from me for taking a home video and putting it on my blog. But history, not even all that long ago has a perfect example for us to learn from.
In the 90’s as the web was exploding the gif format became incredibly popular for displaying simple animated images. Banner-ads and bouncing icons all used it. Webmasters couldn’t live without it. Then … wham those webmasters started getting letters. The letters were from a company called Unisys, indicating that the company held a patent on the gif format and that for using it – these webmasters were now liable to pay a (massive) royalty fee. They went after big and small sites alike and made plenty of money while every site that could got rid of gif images.

This was about 10 years ago – so most of the people now online weren’t around – the tech population of the net was a much larger percentage and while there was no effective way of fighting back, we could get the word out and get most sites to drop their gifs before they got those letters of demand.

The problem didn’t go away until 2006 when the gif patent finally expired. Well the patent problems with H264 is not going to go away that fast – it’s early in the process. They could truly milk the web and it’s users dry. Wouldn’t Microsoft and Apple just love to demand nice big royalty checks from google for Youtube ?
No wonder google is pushing VP8 and even decided to OpenSource it. VP8 is the codec on which Theora was based and it’s creators have made a no-patent-royalties promise. Google recently bought it from On2 and promised to make it free software in an effort to push back against the threat of a core technology of the web once more being subject to patent problems.
Animated gifs were a big but not insurmountable loss to websites a decade ago. Video today is going to be far more important – the web has changed in these years, and it’s crucial that it remains open and free for all to develop on if the innovation and world-changing technologies that has already happened is to continue.
The web and the internet has broken every rule of sociology and changed the world in ways that would never have been possible before. Primarily – it did this by giving everybody a voice. Many corporations would love nothing more than to turn it into a world of few-speakers and many listeners like television. For corporations – that means increased profits. But our world does not exist just to make corporations rich. The technology of the internet has already lived up to the potential to bring massive positive change to the lives off all people, and it’s only in its infancy.
Allowing it to lose the very attribute that makes it such a powerful force for change would be to destroy the very reason it exists and depriving ourselves and our children of whatever better future it can promise. Once the battle was over animated gifs. Now it’s online video. Make no mistake- the time will come when it will be over the very concept of actually interacting online instead of just consuming. To keep the web free and open always was, and always will be, the only way to win that fight.

*Note: the exact story about gifs is a bit more complex and I simplified the history a bit to show the parallels. In truth for example gif was actually covered by TWO separate patents, one belonging to Unisys and one to IBM. At one point Unisys had declared using gif images to be “doable freely for non-commercial purposes”, at another they had demanded royalties and at yet another time they demanded royalties only from programmers who wrote applications to create gifs with. I left these details out above, not to obscure or mislead but simply because they were irrelevant to the point I was making. That the history of the GIF fiasco was a major event in Internet history which has largely been forgotten and which we currently risk repeating stands without question to me. That this history was convoluted, complex and full of strange side-tracks only proves that history is never simple.
This article has a nice detailed version of the history if you are curious: http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/node/1772 all in all though – the fact that the H264 case is simpler only makes it worse. We know they are going to demand money, they’ve said it openly. If we manage to get in the same boat as we did with gif despite having been warned – it would really be the stupidest event in the history of the web.