• Steve versus Theora

    According to an email sent by an increasingly talkative Steve Jobs on Friday, Apple is assembling a "patent pool" - sort of an intellectual property supergroup - to go after open source video codecs that they feel infringe on private patents. As part of Jobs's crusade to get developers to drop Flash in favor of the H.264 video standard, he's brought on a key ally in Microsoft, which sent out a similar message in a blog post last week.

    The Theora codec is a free video compression format which derives from the VP3 format developed by On2 Technologies. On2 opened the source code to VP3 back in 2002 and then donated it to the Xiph.Org Foundation, and made an irrevocable license-free grant for any patent claims. They stopped development of VP3 and worked with Xiph.Org to release Theora completely royalty-free. H.264, on the other hand, is closed source and the license is only royalty-free until 2015. Developers fear that once H.264 is accepted as a de facto standard, the patent holders will demand royalties from every product that implements it.

    Apple and Microsoft have intimated, without proving that this is the case, that the Theora codec derives from patented technology. In an email to Hugo Roy of the Free Software Foundation Europe, Steve Jobs asserted that "All video codecs are covered by patents." Much of this concern is thought to come from the so-called "patent thicket" which surrounds the MPEG-2 standard: over 640 patents are involved in the basic technology. Xiph.Org, for its part, asserts that this is not so, labeling it a way of spreading "FUD" (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) among developers considering the standard. Lead developer Gregory Maxwell is claiming that Theora avoided these pitfalls "by rejecting the taint of encumbered technology, and accepting the challenges and compromises that come from doing so."

    Clearly, Apple and Microsoft and the rest of their patent posse believe that they can prove otherwise. Whatever the truth may be, there is certainly an imbalance of legal firepower between the industry giants and the free software campaigners.
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