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Steve Replies to Email: “All Video Codecs Are Covered By Patents”

It seems like John Gruber was right once again, this time about video codes and patents. After reading Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash” post yesterday, Apple fan Free Software activist Hugo Roy decided to write an open letter to Steve Jobs about the statements he made in regards of openness and web standards. Of course Steve replied.

Check out the full conversation after the break.

Hugo’s letter:

“Dear Steve Jobs,

Having read your Thoughts on Flash, I could not agree with you more. Flash is not the Web, and I am glad Apple seizes the opportunity of open standards to build better products for their customers.

But I am not so sure about your definition of the word Open in general. I will not argue here that it is ironic you find the Apple Store more open than Flash. I will not complain either that you like Openness so much that when you use “Open Source” Software to build your Mac operating system, you keep all the openness for yourself and don’t give it to your customers, nor to the developers whose works have been very useful to you.

I figured that writing an open letter was an appropriate way to remind you of a couple of things that you may have forgotten — maybe in good faith — about open standards.

It is true that HTML5 is an emerging open standard, and I am glad that you adopted it (well, did you really have the choice anyway?). However I have to say I am impressed in the way you succeed in saying how Apple has been doing great with open standards against Flash… while explaining Flash videos is not a problem, because Apple has implemented another video codec: H.264.

May I remind you that H.264 is not an open standard? This video codec is covered by patents, and “vendors and commercial users of products which make use of H.264/AVC are expected to pay patent licensing royalties for the patented technology” (ref). This is why Mozilla Firefox and Opera have not adopted this video codec for their HTML5 implementation, and decided to chose Theora as a sustainable and open alternative.

Free Software Foundation Europe have been raising consensus and awareness on Open Standards for some years already. I am sure we would be happy to help Apple make the good decision. So, to begin with, here is the definition:”

[definition follows]

Steve’s reply:

“All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other “open source” codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn’t mean or guarantee that it doesn’t infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.

Sent from my iPad”

What’s most interesting about Jobs’ reply, besides the fact that all codecs are actually covered by patents, is what he says about Theora, the standard adopted by Mozilla for Firefox and many times defined “open source”. Well, Steve says that a patent pool is being assembled, and they’re going after Theora, and all those other open source codecs. In short, this means that the codec Mozilla was claiming to be free and without restrictions, might indeed turn out to be patented and under license - which means legal exposure and uncertain licensing costs.

Last, here’s what John Gruber wrote back in March:

“The developers of Ogg Theora have released the format and implementations freely, and claim no patent rights to it. But that doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t hold patents — or won’t be granted patents — that they believe or will claim Ogg Theora violates.

In short, using Ogg Theora is no guarantee that the MPEG LA isn’t going to pursue you for licensing fees.

This uncertain patent landscape is reportedly one reason Apple doesn’t support Ogg Theora. If some patent troll decides H.264 violates a patent, they must go to court with MPEG LA, not individual licensees. If a patent troll decides Ogg Theora violates a patent, they might sue those who are using it. I bring this up not to say browsers should not support Ogg Theora — I’m just saying Ogg is a lot closer to being in GIF’s boat than H.264 is.”

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