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Audio/video formats: Licensing and patents

The video-domain is a tricky thing, but I’ll do my best :)

Containers

Before we proceed, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same things here:
AVI, MOV, MKV and OGG are merely audio/video containers. Not codecs.

When talking about digital videos, people often just refer to the container format, as this is what they “see” when they see the file. But digital video consists of 3 parts:

  1. video codec
  2. audio codec
  3. container format

There are hardly any patents or licensing issues regarding containers. AVI for example is, according to my knowledge free and open – even though it’s been specified by Microsoft ages ago, and MOV (=Quicktime container) licensing appears to be limited to their software, but not the container.

Ogg as container has gained popularity within the audio domain, but is hardly being used for video. I guess, because MKV (=Matroska) seems to be the best solution for the job at the moment. For web-applications, Google’s “WebM” might be a good thing in the (near) future.

As Matroska also supports to be used as audio-only container, I’d personally find it not unlikely, that the current popularity of MKV among consumers might lead to a broader adoption of that format for audio as well – but that’s difficult to say…

For video hardware it’s currently definitely the case that many of them support MKV out-of-the-box, but will very likely never see any reason to support OGV.

Codecs

So, when talking about patents and licensing issues in the audio/video domain, it’s about the codecs – or algorithms used by them.

Video codecs

Popular non-free lossy (consumer) video codecs at the moment are:

Free ones comparable to MPEG-4 at the moment are:

Audio Codecs

In the audio domain, the popular non-free ones are:

And the free ones:

NOTE: I’ll leave lossless codecs out of the game for the moment, as they are not as widely used/seen by regular consumers.

What is being compared?

Sorry for the detailed introduction, but I think it’s a good thing to make clear that for digital video you need to consider all 3 things:
video-codec, audio-codec and the container.

Usually, most people are actually comparing the most common/popular codecs used within the containers to each other, probably being:

  • AVI:
    • video: XviD/DivX (= MPEG4 ASP)
    • audio: MP3 [8]
  • MOV:
    • video: h264 (= MPEG4 AVC), sometimes “Quicktime” (=also the name of a codec)
    • audio: AAC (Advanced Audio Coding)
  • OGG:
    • video: Theora
    • audio: Vorbis

Freedom aspects:

All currently widely used non-free A/V codecs mentioned above cannot easily be implemented and shared as Free Software, because it might infringe licensing or patents of these codecs.
This means, that depending on the legislation of the countries where the software is downloaded from – and the country the software user is living in.

Nice example: VLC has a note on its website explaining why they are allowed to distribute their application freely:

“Neither French law nor European conventions recognize software as patentable (see French section below).
Therefore, software patents licenses do not apply on VideoLAN software.”

Their servers are located in France. If they’d be located in the U.S. things would be very different.

As Free Software developers could get sued for distributing patented software, most distributions and applications must be shipped without support for these formats. This is the reason why MP3, DVD-Playback, etc. doesn’t work out-of-the-box on Free Software OS (e.g. Ubuntu, Debian, …)

Even worse: Some licensing forbids implement things as Free Software, because then the inner-workings would be visible (although this applies mostly to media-related DRM issues)

With proprietary software, the users are already paying for the (partial!) use of these formats: The royalty fees are included in the price. Funny though, that noone really ever reads the licensing texts, as Apple’s Quicktime license for example, states that additional fees are are required for using MPEG-2/4 for other than personal- or non-commercial use:

“ANY USE OF THIS PRODUCT OTHER THAN CONSUMER PERSONAL USE IN ANY MANNER
THAT COMPLIES WITH THE MPEG-2 STANDARD FOR ENCODING VIDEO INFORMATION
FOR PACKAGED MEDIA IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED WITHOUT A LICENSE UNDER
APPLICABLE PATENTS IN THE MPEG-2 PATENT PORTFOLIO, WHICH LICENSE IS
AVAILABLE FROM MPEG LA, L.L.C, 250 STEELE STREET, SUITE 300, DENVER,
COLORADO 80206.”

So if you use your iStuff to make a video and then go-pro and make money with it: You could get sued… (But I’m not a lawyer)

Conclusion

As you can see, licensing and patent issues with A/V codecs mean that a developer can only join the game if they play by proprietary rules – and have (enough) money to do so. So, even if it’s technically possible to implement these formats as Free Software (e.g. LAME, x264, …), these legal barriers make it difficult (or impossible) to grant access to content encoded in these formats.

When talking about money, you might want to take a look at the MP3 licensing costs for starters (…and that’s an ancient format already!) – or the pricelist for Microsoft codecs.

I hope this cleared things up a bit? ;)

5 Responses to “Audio/video formats: Licensing and patents”

  1. Hanno Says:

    Two comments:

    First, I wonder why you haven’t mentioned opus. It’s a pretty new free audio codec which beats almost everything on the market on most applications. It’s definitely the thing you want to use for new applications if you don’t need lossless.

    Second, I wonder about the patents for MP3/MPEG: These are quite old and patents don’t last forever. Are there still patents covering mpeg2/4 and mp3? And if yes, when will they expire? For example, MP3 came on the market 1995. Assuming MP3 today is still the same technology MP3 was back then, it should definitely be patent-free in 2015.

  2. Aleksej Says:

    Hi. There is a typo: “VP9″ should be “VP8″ (VP8 is used in WebM).

  3. Mike Linksvayer Says:

    Good post, important topic. A few comments:

    Why “near future” qualifier for WebM? It is widely used in web applications right now.

    You almost certainly mean VP8 where VP9 is written; the latter is under development.

    Opus deserves a mention under audio.

  4. pb Says:

    Thanks for your hints.
    I must admit I wrote this article quite a while ago, and Opus wasn’t officially released then.

    VP8/VP9: When I wanted to finally get the job done to publish that text, I mis-corrected by original text from VP8 to VP9.
    Reversed that mistake now.
    Thanks.

  5. pb Says:

    You’re right.
    About the patent’s lifetime: Yes, patents do run out. I’ll have to check on that to get exact numbers for MP3/MPEG.

    Regarding Opus, however, it’s going to be interesting how the community/market picks it up.
    As we have seen with Ogg/Vorbis (which, compared to MP3, has superior sound quality for less bits) was never picked up as widely as it should have been…

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