No double standards: supporting Google’s push for WebM

We’ve signed up as a supporter of the WebM Project, and we encourage other foundations and organizations to join us—write to webmaster @@@ to learn how. Today, we’re also urging Web site operators to distribute videos in the WebM format, and abandon H.264

Last week, Google announced that it plans to remove support for the H.264 video codec from its browsers, in favor of the WebM codec that they recently made free. Since then, there’s been a lot of discussion about how this change will affect the Web going forward, as HTML5 standards like the video tag mature.

We applaud Google for this change; it’s a positive step for free software, its users, and everyone who uses the Web. For a while now, watching video on the Web has been fraught with peril. Most of it is delivered with Flash, which is proprietary, nonstandard software. Free software alternatives like GNU Gnash are available, but the user experience isn’t always as seamless as it ought to be.

When work began on the next version of the HTML standard, HTML5, work on video delivery and playback was a priority. But while everybody agrees on how the <video> tag should look, there’s no agreement about how that video should be encoded. Microsoft and Apple support H.264; Mozilla and Opera support WebM and Ogg Theora. For a while, Google has been supporting all of these codecs—but now it’s made a bold move to support free standards and drop H.264.

That’s good news, because if Web video standardizes on H.264, that won’t be any better than the situation today. H.264 is a patent-encumbered codec; the MPEG LA organization requires developers who implement it to agree to a patent license. This license is fundamentally incompatible with software freedom. It requires developers to restrict how their software can be used, and to collect royalties in many situations.

In order to make sure the Web stays free for everyone, we need a free codec to prevail as the de facto standard with HTML5. WebM can be that codec: Google provides a patent license with the standard that is compatible with free software licenses, and even got the development ball rolling by releasing a free implementation. They’re also promoting it aggressively, and their decision to drop H.264 is one more step in that direction.

Some reaction to Google’s move has suggested that it represents a step back for standards on the Web, because H.264 is supported by more hardware and software. Those comments represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the vision of the Web as free and unencumbered. We can only be free if we reject data formats that are restricted by patents.

But the issue’s not settled yet. Now’s the time for everyone to take action and make sure that WebM actually sees the adoption we need. To that end, we’ve signed up as a supporter of the WebM Project, and we encourage other foundations and organizations to join us—write to to learn how. Today, we’re also urging Web site operators to distribute videos in the WebM format, and abandon H.264.

Soon, we’ll revamp our PlayOgg campaign into PlayFreedom, where we’ll be focusing on more ways that everyone can encourage WebM adoption. You can sign up now to learn more about how you can help. Together, we can ensure that the Web fulfills its promise of being free for everyone.

This article was written by Brett Smith and originally published on Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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