The new browser video wars
March 21, 2010 9:19 AM   Subscribe

The <video tag>, as defined by the HTML5 spec, is an element "used for playing videos or movies". Which codec those videos or movies are in is currently undefined, with the two contenders being the free open source Ogg Theora and the proprietary H.264. With the unveiling of Internet Explorer 9 both Microsoft and Apple are supporting H.264 in their browsers, and comparisons of the standards seem to bear out H.264 as the better of the two. However Mozilla have taken a stance against incorporating H264 into Firefox on the grounds that it is patented and has to be licensed. Arguments are now being made for and against Mozilla sticking to its ideals. John Gruber of Daring Fireball points out that Firefox already supports proprietary formats such as GIF. Um, perhaps not the best example.
posted by Artw (140 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Google's Chrome is also in the H.264 camp.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Google chrome supports both, if I recall correctly. Opera is in the Theora camp.
posted by Frankieist at 9:26 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


x264 is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread. Once some 2010 SoC changes are written and incorporated incorporated, it'll be able to do direct X -> H.264 + AAC in FLV from the command line / batch files using the most efficient H.264 encoder in existence.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:29 AM on March 21, 2010


I'm not entirely clear on why anybody thinks it's acceptable for the standard video format for the web (as people keep assuring me will occur) to be owned by someone, forcing all browsers to pay the creator, but then again, I'm not entirely clear on why it's acceptable to patent a file format to begin with.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:31 AM on March 21, 2010 [19 favorites]


Also, what with the continued non-death of IE6, and IE8 shaping up to be the new IE6 (lack of XP support is just going to majorly stall upgrades to 9) , the big cross-browser picture for video will probably include Flash as well for quite some time. Of course, you could make an argument for chalking that one up to the H264 camp.
posted by Artw at 9:33 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


GIF is the ideal example for the issues surrounding H.264. Patents are a real threat to freedom to develop stuff on the Internet. Submarine patents are the worst, as the GIF fiasco showed us all. This time we're walking towards standardizing a proprietary technology for multimedia on the Web with eyes open, and that's a real shame. I think Mozilla's stand on principle here is honorable, but probably doomed to fail.

I think the solution here is to strong-arm the H.264 patent owners into granting a perpetual royalty-free license for all patents related to H.264 decoding in software. Let them charge for their encoding patents and hardware accelerated decoding, if they must. Let us decode all content for free.

Securing this license is practically difficult given the politics surrounding the ownership of H.264. It's also not clear even how to do find all possible related patents, present and future. H.264 is complex enough there's probably undiscovered patents that may cover pieces of it. Who knows, maybe Intellectual Ventures or Apple or Bob's Sandwich Shop will show up with a previously unknown video patent and claim to have "invented" some aspect of online video and go on the warpath suing companies that "stole" it from them.

The US patent system is fundamentally broken.
posted by Nelson at 9:33 AM on March 21, 2010 [11 favorites]


I'd say GIF is actually a great example. Unisys (the owners of the patent in question) never sued or threatened to sue any open source or free software projects or users. And in fact it was Unisys's attempt to enforce stronger licensing terms from commercial users that led to PNG taking over.

If anything the lesson from the GIF patent story is that suing free and open source software projects is unlikely and that bait and switch is likely to backfire and result in the widespread adoption of a non-patent-encumbered alternative. Thus, Mozilla should feel free to use H.264 until and unless MPEG LA tries to extract licensing fees or starts threatening to sue.

And they won't sue, since it would be expensive, a PR nightmare, damages would be minimal, an injunction wouldn't be guaranteed, and even if an injunction were obtained it wouldn't actually stop development or distribution of the infringing software because development would just move to another country. And trying to enjoin Firefox development all over the world would be a fool's errand, even assuming MPEG LA has patents in every jurisdiction of note. Trying to enjoin end users would be a massive undertaking (much more so than the RIAA lawsuits), an even worse PR nightmare, and even more expensive.

The much-touted Software Patent Apocalypse just isn't going to happen, certainly not to a widely used, well-liked, multi-platform program supported by wealthy commercial interests.
posted by jedicus at 9:35 AM on March 21, 2010 [13 favorites]


(Next I'll do embeddable type...)
posted by Artw at 9:35 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is going kill FireFox if they don't license 264. Google, Apple and Microsoft already have the license so it costs them nothing to add it to their browsers.

a quote from Google-
"If [youtube] were to switch to theora and maintain even a semblance of the current youtube quality it would take up most available bandwidth across the Internet."
posted by bhnyc at 9:38 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Problem solved if the H.264 owners would simply supply or authorize a player plug-in for Mozilla browsers. It would seem a very small sacrifice to assure universal access to H.264 content, and they'd make their money from licencing creator apps. Same business model as Flash, yes?
posted by Artful Codger at 9:39 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


then again, I'm not entirely clear on why it's acceptable to patent a file format to begin with.

It may not be a meaningful distinction to you, but the AVC/H.264 patents don't claim a file format as such. They claim methods for encoding and decoding video and programs that implement those methods.
posted by jedicus at 9:40 AM on March 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


This is my legal notice that I intend to enforce my rights under US Pat 7912250, Method for commenting in Metafilter thread #90279. All commenting in this thread is hereby enjoined. Memail me if you'd like to negotiate a license.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:42 AM on March 21, 2010 [11 favorites]


Why not just transfer the codec when you visit a page, like with fonts? With the new JavaScript engines, you could even decode video in JS
posted by delmoi at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2010


This is my legal notice that I intend to enforce my rights under US Pat 7912250

Careful, someone might sue you for false marking and claim damages of $500 for every time this thread is viewed.

/patent nerd joke
posted by jedicus at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'd say GIF is actually a great example. Unisys (the owners of the patent in question) never sued or threatened to sue any open source or free software projects or users. And in fact it was Unisys's attempt to enforce stronger licensing terms from commercial users that led to PNG taking over.

I wonder if what happens will just be that everyone uses 264 and nothing happens. When I used to run Linux, it seemed like practically every repository had a copy of decss.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:47 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kill software patents. Protect code with copyright. Reduce length of copyright protection to 5 years maximum for all things, not just software.

If we hobble our information society with chains left over from the industrial age, the technological and cultural advancement of the human race will suffer for it.

"What we did was exchange information, and stood on each other's shoulders. That's the reason the field advanced so quickly."

Les Earnest, a pioneer of computer science.
posted by stringbean at 9:56 AM on March 21, 2010 [13 favorites]


Why not just transfer the codec when you visit a page, like with fonts? With the new JavaScript engines, you could even decode video in JS.

It'd be cool, but I think it's entirely impractical. Javascript decoding is going to be awfully slow and makes hardware optimization impossible. And embedded web fonts aren't a good example of a working technology. Typekit is the best font-delivery system I've seen yet, and it still has rough edges (literally). SiFR is a mess. And don't even joke about Microsoft's attempts. And AFAIK none of the font embedding options ship a decoder.

Also, the last thing I want is websites to be sending me 100k of complex decoding software to look at their damn advertisement.
posted by Nelson at 10:09 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Google's argument that they want H.264 because Theora is inferior is disingenuous. It's open source, if Google wants it to perform better, I'm pretty confident that they could easily dedicate a handful of programmers. (Furthermore, the expense of their salaries is a better investment than licensing fees and it would protect them from future price hikes.)
posted by oddman at 10:22 AM on March 21, 2010


Which side will blink first?
posted by hal9k at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


jedicus: Very good points, although it must be noted that MPEG-LA's whole purpose is to extract licensing fees. But suing Mozilla? They should know it isn't a good idea. I'm not so sure Mozilla knows, though.

Also, it's possible (highly likely, even) that open source solutions like Theora also infringe one or several of MPEG-LA's patents. I doubt Ogg has a team of patent attorneys doing freedom-to-operate searches on every single line of code they write. To take an "open-source" format, rather than a "proprietary" format is definitely not a workaround around possible patent infringement.

However, before hyperventilating, and start venting the usual lines ("the patent system is broken", etc., etc.), the FOSS folks should consider the following:

a) You are not so very special and precious: these features of the patent system have existed for centuries, and other industries have coped, and even flourished with them. There's no particular reason why the software industry shouldn't either.

b) You simply aren't very likely targets for a lawsuit. A few large for-profit distros like Red Hat may be, but individual developers or the Mozilla Foundation? No, not really. Patent lawsuits are damn expensive (in particular in the US), and normally only worthwhile if the alleged infringer is a big fat walking wad of cash. Do you know who gets sued all the time? Microsoft. According to Microsoft lawyers, at any given time, they're the defendants in 20+ patent infringement cases. This is why I sometimes (often) suspect that Steve Ballmer's regular, but always unfulfilled threats to start suing the pants off Linux is merely a cynical ploy to keep the FOSS world in arms against software patents, something which suits Microsoft just fine.

c) Stop obsessing about "submarine patents". Those have only ever existed in the US, and even there they went out of fashion in the 90s. Elsewhere, patent applications normally have to be published 18 months after they are filed. In the US, it used to be that patent applications were kept secret until the patent was granted, and the term started from the date of grant. Hence, by delaying the grant as much as they could (sometimes over decades) some patentees could "surface" when a technology was mature and in widespread use and then cash in. Hence "submarine patent". A classic case was the infamous Selden patent. However, this has changed. Now, if the same applicant also applies abroad, the US patent application will also become public after 18 months. Moreover, the patent term is now counted from the date of filing, not the date of grant: there's little incentive for the applicant to delay the grant.
posted by Skeptic at 10:28 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


stringbean You know what? In other fields of technology people also exchange information and stand on each other's shoulders. Indeed, the patent system, by encouraging publication, has been an important part of this exchange of information since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
posted by Skeptic at 10:38 AM on March 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


Which codec those videos or movies are in is currently undefined, with the two contenders being the free open source Ogg Theora and the proprietary H.264.

The img tag itself didn't require the specification of a single codec. As a browser, you fetch the file, and if you understand it, great, display it. How/why does that not also apply to the video tag?
posted by Jpfed at 10:38 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


"John Gruber of Daring Fireball points out that Firefox already supports proprietary formats such as GIF. Um, perhaps not the best example."

I disagree with these two sentences. The first incorrectly describes Gruber's statement regarding Mozilla and GIF a decade ago. As to the second, support for GIF was implemented in Mozilla/Netscape while the format was patented by UNISYS; it's a fine example of a historical decision.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball cites Brian Crescimanno's observation that, in the past, Mozilla has chosen to support the proprietary, "patent-encumbered" GIF format.
As he points out, it’s not as though Mozilla has never before supported proprietary formats (e.g. GIF).
John Gruber
Imagine also if Mozilla had taken the same stance against GIF images in the early 2000's when the format was patent-encumbered just as H.264 is today; the browser barely would have gotten off the ground. In that instance, pragmatism and the need to not break the web won out over a desire to only support free and open formats.
Brian Crescimanno
In researching this I did find one clear difference between the GIF decision and the H.264 decision that is not highlighted by either of the authors linked below. In the past, UNISYS announced that they would begin charging money for GIF years after the format became popular. This differs from today's debate, where MPEG LA has ensured from the beginning that H.264 is clearly encumbered, licensed, and so forth. In such an environment I think it is very sensible to worry more about H.264 than they did about GIF in the past. It's not as simple as "they did it once, they can do it again".
Most people don't understand that something very dangerous is taking place behind the scenes... Unisys was asking some website owners $5000 to $7500 to able to use GIFs on their sites... We're looking at the same situation with H.264, except at a far larger scale.
Chris Blizzard
posted by crysflame at 10:40 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


oops, should be "linked above"
posted by crysflame at 10:42 AM on March 21, 2010


My guess: Mozilla and Opera will stick with Theora. Sites like YouTube will continue to deliver H.264-via-Flash to those browsers (via a wrapper around the H.264-encoded video served to Internet Explorer and Safari.)
posted by davejay at 10:56 AM on March 21, 2010



Google's argument that they want H.264 because Theora is inferior is disingenuous. It's open source, if Google wants it to perform better, I'm pretty confident that they could easily dedicate a handful of programmers.


The problem is not the implementation of the code. What you're saying is basically like saying "there's nothing wrong with NTSC, if people would just dedicate a few EEs to better display gear NTSC would be fine."
posted by rr at 10:57 AM on March 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty confident that they could easily dedicate a handful of programmers.
Not if the methods in the better codecs are patented they can't. (On preview: what rr said.)

Ogg's only open source in the first place because it sucks: the original creators couldn't make any money from it commercially, so they gave it to the charity shop.

As a browser, you fetch the file, and if you understand it, great, display it. How/why does that not also apply to the video tag?
It does. The discussion is over which files browser makers are choosing to understand -- the junky open source one that hardly anybody uses, or the patented high-quality one that has widespread hardware support and is quickly becoming the de facto web codec.

(Mozilla is muddying the waters, however, by not only simply choosing to not understand h.264 files, they're going out of their way to make it difficult for any third parties to enable h.264 in Firefox too.)
posted by bonaldi at 11:05 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jpfed : The img tag itself didn't require the specification of a single codec. As a browser, you fetch the file, and if you understand it, great, display it. How/why does that not also apply to the video tag?

Well, it does.

But just as with the img tag, it can't support everything. It will have a short list of "officially" supported formats, a long list of universally-but-unofficially supported formats, and an even longer list of "this video will only play in browser-X" formats.

Whether or not W3C decides to include H.264 or not really doesn't matter at this point. Everyone will support it, including Mozilla (even if not directly, you'll see a new "Firefox + H.264" fork replace it in popularity nearly overnight).

The real problem here amounts to one of, dare I say, professional ethics. Should we encourage, or even allow, an industry standards body to include proprietary technologies in an "open" standard?


rr : The problem is not the implementation of the code. What you're saying is basically like saying "there's nothing wrong with NTSC, if people would just dedicate a few EEs to better display gear NTSC would be fine."

Yes and no.

The underlying compression method from VP3 could quite likely perform comparably to MPEG4 AVC... At their core, both use the same basic idea to store information anyway.

The problem arises in that, to make Theora perform as well as H.264, it would effectively become H.264. Once you add in features such as adaptive block size, motion prediction and compensation, and better psychovisual modeling, you get very much the same end result in terms of size and quality... Except, the magic words under patent here cover exactly those ideas.

So yes, an infinite number of monkeys could do it. But no, it would still infringe on MPEG-LA's patents.
posted by pla at 11:08 AM on March 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


Typekit is the best font-delivery system I've seen yet, and it still has rough edges (literally). SiFR is a mess. And don't even joke about Microsoft's attempts. And AFAIK none of the font embedding options ship a decoder.

Microsoft were the first to implement @font-face, which is absolutely the way to go for font embedding - SIFR and other non-CSS based alternatives being pretty hacky overall. It's the way Typekit works.

I really *should* do a post on font embedding - technologically it's pretty much there in all major browsers now, with the major hurdles being licensing ones, and the number of fonts you can use is increasing exponentially. That and there's stuff like Typekit, which has an interesting business model.
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is there a good way to let the Firefox folks know that x264 is great, and that I think they should support it?
posted by paisley henosis at 11:17 AM on March 21, 2010


Actually, I am pretty sure it is currently impossible to make a video codec that is entirely unencumbered (at least until some patents are tested in court). As alluded to above, it is hard to even licence H.264 thoroughly; there are a lot of people who might be able to flex some legal muscles, since there is a whole raft of general video (and video on the web, and video delivered electronically over a packet switched network, you get the drift....) patents and some of those patents make very general claims.

Incidentally, flash does support H.264; I'm not sure if Mozilla can leverage that to sneak H.264 into Firefox while sticking Adobe with the bill. Probably not, but who knows?
posted by Bovine Love at 11:21 AM on March 21, 2010


Also, x264 isn't necessarily legal.
posted by Bovine Love at 11:21 AM on March 21, 2010


The problem is not the implementation of the code. What you're saying is basically like saying "there's nothing wrong with NTSC, if people would just dedicate a few EEs to better display gear NTSC would be fine."

If you're talking about NTSC vs. HD, there's a huge difference, one is digital and one is analog. But there were high-definition analog systems built at one point, and it's possible to say that NTSC's resolution could have been boosted, but it would have been a huge hack.

On the other hand, Theora files are only 50% larger or something like that. It might be easy to figure out a way to boost the quality.

Or do something new. The MPEG standard might be really well done, but if you take into consideration the advanced capabilities of modern desktops, you could come up with a compression system that took advantage of GPUs, and things like that to decode, and maybe get even better compression and quality. Maybe falling back to H.264 for mobile devices.
The problem arises in that, to make Theora perform as well as H.264, it would effectively become H.264. Once you add in features such as adaptive block size, motion prediction and compensation, and better psychovisual modeling, you get very much the same end result in terms of size and quality
Well, that's the trouble with patents. Something like "adaptive block size" is pretty obvious, and so is motion compensation. But if you come up with new words and new (if isomorphic math) to describe it then would the patent still apply? I mean, I think someone proved that fractal image compression and wavelet image compression are equivalent, but that doesn't mean that suddenly the fractal image patent would apply to JPEG2000 or something (I don't know how accurate that actually is)

But yeah, software patents are bullshit from the start really.
posted by delmoi at 11:24 AM on March 21, 2010


Bovine Love : Incidentally, flash does support H.264; I'm not sure if Mozilla can leverage that to sneak H.264 into Firefox while sticking Adobe with the bill. Probably not, but who knows?

Sure they can - They already do, in fact. Every time you watch an HD YouTube video, you've made use of exactly that mechanism.

This involves an extension to the next gen of HTML that would make it so you don't need a 3rd-party plugin to watch video content.
posted by pla at 11:27 AM on March 21, 2010


Motion compensation and adaptive block size are obvious in retrospect, but not so much at the time. As well, of course the actual way these things are done (when done well) is not at all obvious, hence why so many inferior algorithms.

H.264 is an extremely good codec, and built on some very solid work, done at considerable effort and expense. It is not just some algorithm with a few developers thrown at it to punch things up a bit. I'm not for software patents, but if I were, the specific of H.264 would be the kind of thing that are examples of good ones. The "deliver video over a IP network" sorts are excellent examples of the types of claims which are bad.
posted by Bovine Love at 11:30 AM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


This was one of my favourite finds of recent times - no longer do I have to endure YouTube with the background whine of my Macbook's fan interfering with the audio.
posted by djgh at 11:38 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which side will blink first?

Now, that's a tag I've not seen in a long time. A long time.
posted by Aquaman at 11:42 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hate back and forth discussions in MeFi comments, but Skeptic, I really can't agree with you.

these features of the patent system have existed for centuries

17 years is no longer a short time in the cycle of innovation. What if NCSA had patented the graphical web browser or if CERN had patented aspects of HTML, and licensed them in a restricted fashion? Those patents would only be expiring now. Also, while the patent system is old, the number of patents filed per year has exploded well past the ability for the Patent Office to conduct any meaningful review for "useful, novel, non-obvious". Finally, the whole concept of patenting software algorithms is itself controversial and a new phenomenon. Software really is different than what the patent system was designed to protect.

You simply aren't very likely targets for a lawsuit.

I wouldn't be so sure about that. Mozilla is making on the order of $100m/year with ad revenue. Being a non-profit doesn't make you immune to IP lawsuits. MPEG-LA may choose not to sue Mozilla because it'd look bad, but do you really want to count on that largesse? And I think Mozilla is taking a principled stand in part to protect all the sites that may want to stream video on the Internet, who may very well be sued if they aren't licensing H.264 patents. I wouldn't count on x264 having licensed all relevant patents correctly.

Stop obsessing about "submarine patents"

Fair enough, I used that specific term of art incorrectly. The recent changes to patent publication rules have helped with submarine patents. What I meant was "obscure patents", ones that have been issued but we don't know about. Lurking patents that no free software product has paid a patent lawyer to research for them. This concern also speaks to your point about patent publication. Contemporary patents are deliberately written in obfuscated language, to specifically be difficult to find via keyword search or to be understood by rival inventors. We're a long way from the originally intended function of patents encouraging inventors to share ideas.
posted by Nelson at 11:42 AM on March 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


This sort of thing is so huge that something interesting is bound to happen. I use chrome in general and I use http://www.youtube.com/html5 ... It works nicer on my mac than the flash one.

I think if MPEG LA goes in for the quick buck they will reap only a PR scandal. Whereas if they keep enforcing patents for people who can obviously pay and want to... then they're in good shape and everybody pretty much wins.

Arguing that Theora can be as good is H.264 ... is a lot like saying Android 1.2 can be as good as iPhone os 3.0 ... sure... in time? But iPhone OS 4 already has rumored multitasking support... whoever catches on first wins... until someone really disrupts them. Otherwise it's a case of catch up.

As in Firefox got its start because NCSA Mosaic was the first one... I downloaded it and used it... Going to netscape, then mozilla, then firefox became natural... but then WebKit (aka KHTML) and now chrome (chromium is the renderer?) got better.

I agree with a lot of the idealism... I just don't think anyone will stop it and if Firefox makes this ideological stance they'll risk their plateauing market share.
posted by nutate at 11:44 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does it really matter what standard Mozilla endorses? It seems likely far fewer people will be using it five years from now.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:46 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bovine Love: the algorithms might be complicated, but the ideas are pretty intuitive. I mean anyone can look at a moving image and see that things don't change too much from frame to frame other then the motion. And in fact, motion compensation is actually just course encoding of Optical Flow, which you can find references too quite a ways back
posted by delmoi at 11:46 AM on March 21, 2010


Bovine Love: You make a good point. Now, if H.264 was built on solid work, done at considerable effort and expense, why shouldn't that work, in your opinion, be protectable by patents?

I'm not talking about BS patents. Certainly there is a significantly number of those in the software field. They were mostly granted during the dot com boom years, when patent offices were swamped with such applications, and didn't have the means to conduct proper prior art searches on them. In general, it has become much more difficult to get them now. And that's a good thing: crap patents only enrich litigation lawyers.

I'm talking about patents on far from obvious technical inventions, implemented through software. Copyright protects only the code itself. If the same algorithms are rewritten using different code, copyright is worthless. Why should not the use of such novel and inventive algorithms for technical applications (such as video encoding and decoding), developed at great effort and expense be patentable?
posted by Skeptic at 11:49 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


delmoi: This is one of the many patents in the MPEG-LA patent pool for H.264. It's owned by the Fraunhofer Society, a major German research foundation which gets a major part of its revenue from patent licensing. Can you please, hand on heart, tell me that what it covers, as defined by claim 1 (click on the "Original document" tab, go to page 25, bottom right corner, line 46), was obvious at the time?
posted by Skeptic at 12:00 PM on March 21, 2010


nutate: I use chrome in general and I use http://www.youtube.com/html5 ... It works nicer on my mac than the flash one.

Combining HTML 5 and YouTube's Feather beta is pretty much the way Youtube should be in its default state. Take advantage of Feather even if you're on Firefox.
posted by jeremias at 12:19 PM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Does it really matter what standard Mozilla endorses? It seems likely far fewer people will be using it five years from now.

Especially if it doesn't support features people expect.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:26 PM on March 21, 2010


I hate feeling like Metafilter's explainer of obvious things, but evidently they have to be explained, so....

Skeptic: a) You are not so very special and precious: these features of the patent system have existed for centuries, and other industries have coped, and even flourished with them. There's no particular reason why the software industry shouldn't either.

That isn't a good argument: we have no way of knowing for sure what the world would look like without patents. Saying "Look, that industry is at 12!" doesn't matter if it would be at 36 otherwise. There might even be entire industries that would exist if patents didn't forbid them. And some of the things that are being patented now, such as business methods, are obviously specious.

This isn't to say that the world would be entirely better without patents. But in the fields that most MetaFilter members watch they've been used increasingly as a bludgeon.

One big reason software should be exempt: patent law opens up realms of liability to all kinds of people who wouldn't otherwise be liable. I could probably go and violate a software patent right now without moving from this chair. Unusually bright kids could be exposed to legal liability just for tinkering around with a C compiler, if they make the wrong thing and distribute it. There is little or no capital required to violate a software patent, and software is interesting enough that many people that this probably happens daily, somewhere. I think the absence of a capital and manufacturing requirement is an important element of most people's intuitive objections to patents; it causes patent law to escape from the realm of commercial interests screwing with each other and gives them an avenue for screwing them normal (if somewhat geeky) people.

And beyond that, IANAL, but if I remember correctly the language of patents right now is that any work of man can be patented. That is open to incredible levels of abuse. Business methods are the least of the things that will eventually be patented if that still stands, and all it takes is for some guy to invent something goofy enough and for the Patent Office to approve it.

b) You simply aren't very likely targets for a lawsuit. A few large for-profit distros like Red Hat may be, but individual developers or the Mozilla Foundation? No, not really. Patent lawsuits are damn expensive (in particular in the US), and normally only worthwhile if the alleged infringer is a big fat walking wad of cash.

Or, if you are a big fat walking wad of cash, being immoral as large conglomerations of money tend to be, and you are being challenged by someone without money. If you can't pay to defend from a civil suit you will probably lose. It is just one more way that the web of rights in the world distorts around money the way mass deforms space-time.

To address your example: Microsoft gets sued all the time because they have money to spare, but they can afford to fight the suits. It wouldn't take many patent suits to kill Mozilla, and since a lot of their money comes from contributions it'd put a severe dent in their ability to fund-raise of people knew their contributions were going directly to a suing company instead of towards development.

Worst of all, software of fundamentally disruptive. If someone (or a group of people) sitting on his(their) own can write the best computer program in a world and give it away, there is not a lot that a company that is trying to sell a slightly worse version of that can do in the market to stop him, and that is a good thing. The existence of software patents makes this scenario less likely by limiting who gets to write innovative software to organizations who can trade patent rights with each other, which adds inertia to the software industry at the cost of limiting who can play to those who have horded important patents. Whether you think that is good or not (I don't), one has to admit it doesn't seem to be what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they allowed for them.

Do you know who gets sued all the time? Microsoft. According to Microsoft lawyers, at any given time, they're the defendants in 20+ patent infringement cases.

Microsoft is often bad but they aren't Daemon Sultain Azathoth. Just because abolishing software patents would be good for Microsoft doesn't mean they wouldn't be good for most other people too. And Microsoft applies for, and receives, software patents of their own. That's why your next statement rings hollow:

This is why I sometimes (often) suspect that Steve Ballmer's regular, but always unfulfilled threats to start suing the pants off Linux is merely a cynical ploy to keep the FOSS world in arms against software patents, something which suits Microsoft just fine.

c) Stop obsessing about "submarine patents". Those have only ever existed in the US, and even there they went out of fashion in the 90s.

The U.S. is important because it's still a huge portion of the world, a vastly disproportionate segment of all economic activity. Maybe the cracks are showing, but for the moment at least, the dam still stands.

You might want to tell Apple about that "went out of fashion" thing, they seem to think they're still in vogue. Or maybe their iPhone interface patents are just retro hipster preening.

Elsewhere, patent applications normally have to be published 18 months after they are filed. In the US, it used to be that patent applications were kept secret until the patent was granted, and the term started from the date of grant. Hence, by delaying the grant as much as they could (sometimes over decades) some patentees could "surface" when a technology was mature and in widespread use and then cash in. Hence "submarine patent". A classic case was the infamous Selden patent. However, this has changed. Now, if the same applicant also applies abroad, the US patent application will also become public after 18 months. Moreover, the patent term is now counted from the date of filing, not the date of grant: there's little incentive for the applicant to delay the grant.

You may have a point here. A fairly minor one though; I think most people, when they think of submarine patents, aren't talking about those that are suddenly granted into a world that had come to rely on their absence, but those that are granted but kept obscure until the world makes use of the technology in question, where they then suddenly "remember" they have a patent and starts extending the Colbertian gimmie-hand towards one and all. LICENSE FEE, PLEASE. The way Unisys did it with GIF users.

And say what you want about that, I clearly remember that the patent issue was a big problem for open source software projects for a long, long time. GIMP handled it with a separate download for the GIF libraries, as a way of compartmentalizing away that liability.

LIABILITY. That is what open source people look at with concern when a software patent cordons off some portion of the development mindspace. It's not that they will be sued, it's that they could be, and suddenly all the work they've poured into their project will be rendered useless all because someone decided to employ the big red stamp of doom.
posted by JHarris at 12:27 PM on March 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


... if H.264 was built on solid work, done at considerable effort and expense, why shouldn't that work, in your opinion, be protectable by patents?

Big fucking deal. No one is forcing anyone to exert "considerable effort and expense."

Patents are not required to profit from your efforts -- copyright is completely sufficient for that. Patents are a way of preventing others from using their efforts so they don't compete with you. There is no "independent discovery" exemption for a patent like there is for copyrights. Not just that: fairy tales of small inventors triumphing over giant corporations notwithstanding, the reality of patents is that they only work for giant corporations with large patent portfolios.

It's no surprise that people who actually make stuff have nothing but contempt for these hide-behind-lawyers patent shills.
posted by phliar at 12:30 PM on March 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


It looks like a straightforward arithmetic encoding system. Arithmetic coding is a way of encoding information based on how frequently symbols show up in a stream. Basically, an ideal encoding would would use only as many bits of data as there are bits of information, which is closely related to Entropy. If you have an adaptive arithmetic coding, you update your table when new information comes in (both the sender and receiver, so they stay in sync).

But the problem comes in with modeling the probability of certain symbols. You could just keep count, but what about conditional probability? You could use something like a Bayesian network, or a Markov model, etc. So that's something of a challenge. But the patent doesn't go into that.

The main invention seems to be 1) Having more then one "context", which here means using a different system (well the same system with different parameters, most likely) for estimating the probability of a symbol. and 2) more importantly pre-seeding the "context modeler" with values:
The present invention is based o finding that an improved compression efficiency can be obtained by initializing the context modeler so that the initialization probability information is different from equip-probable distribution for all symbols in the symbol set in question"
That actually does seem pretty obvious to me. Now, maybe the insides of this context modeler are really complicated, I don't know. There are different techniques for figuring out conditional probability that could be used, skimming the rest of this I'm not seeing anything too specific.

The thing is, it could take a lot of research, trial and error, etc to come up with the tables at the start of the patent. Those numbers are what makes this thing "go" but the algorithm that actually uses those parameters may not be that non-obvious.

Think about it this way: There are lots of "obvious" ideas that intuitively make sense. The problem is that in practice not all of them are going to work out, and they might need lots of tuning. But the problem is, once you do the hard work of filtering and tuning them, you haven't actually discovered anything 'non-obvious', you've just discovered that it works.
posted by delmoi at 12:48 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


(that last comment was a response to this:
delmoi: This is one of the many patents in the MPEG-LA patent pool for H.264. It's owned by the Fraunhofer Society, a major German research foundation which gets a major part of its revenue from patent licensing. Can you please, hand on heart, tell me that what it covers, as defined by claim 1 (click on the "Original document" tab, go to page 25, bottom right corner, line 46), was obvious at the time?)
posted by delmoi at 12:57 PM on March 21, 2010


Big fucking deal. No one is forcing anyone to exert "considerable effort and expense."

Er, we're trying to encourage them to exert "considerable effort and expense" because it's in all our interests. And no, copyright isn't enough to protect inventions, whether or not they include copyrightable elements.

US patents are broken; the concept of patents also being broken is a moot point.
posted by bonaldi at 1:12 PM on March 21, 2010


You might want to tell Apple about that "went out of fashion" thing, they seem to think they're still in vogue. Or maybe their iPhone interface patents are just retro hipster preening.

How are Apple's patents on the iPhone submarine parents?
posted by gyc at 1:28 PM on March 21, 2010


I don't know why I've always had such a hostile reaction to the Ogg family of codecs, but I have. I think it's because even though I'm a long-time Linux user and open source advocate, open source ideologues and decisions being made for dumb ideological reasons really irritate me for some reason. Ogg Vorbis, the audio codec, as I recall, was created entirely for a dumb ideological reason: MP3, despite the fact that it's what everyone uses, wasn't free enough and Fraunhofer is going to start charging license fees ANY DAY NOW (remember when that happened? Oh wait it never did. Can you still not play MP3s on Red Hat for this same dumb reason?). Ogg Theora was a video codec that was too bad to sell, and so was donated to charity in a sense, and is championed by the same sort of people who think other perfectly good codecs aren't free enough, so we should use a technically inferior codec because it's free. Plus the name is fucking ridiculous.
posted by DecemberBoy at 1:36 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another thing to keep in mind is that since Flash does not support Ogg, if you want to support Flash and HTML5 in Firefox you have to keep 2 copies of every format, which gets expensive fast even beyond streaming costs (and it affects those too even if the formats are equally efficient, since you now have to double your edge caching). Whereas in the other browsers (including sort-of IE9, although the preview release doesn't actually contain the video tag support they demoed), you can use H264 for both.

Unless you're only supporting a community that is willing to restrict their browser usage, no one is going to be dumping Flash anytime soon (and HTML5 video is not necessarily always going to be superior to Flash -- there will be competition here for performance and features which is good for everyone).
posted by wildcrdj at 1:40 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Plus, it really hurts Linux advocacy. "It can't play MP3s? It can't play this kind of video or that kind of video?" "Well, it could, but a bunch of fat guys with beards decided that's against their ideology, so you have to install a bunch of packages with names like 'gstreamer-ugly' to do what every other desktop OS does out of the box".
posted by DecemberBoy at 1:41 PM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, here is a nice technical overview of H264 including some comparisons with Ogg at the implementation level.

Arithmetic encoding is of course one part of it (covered in a parrticular implementation by the patent delmoi talks about), but it's only one step in a bigger process (loop filtering, frame types [I/B/P/etc], macroblock construction, predictive encoding, etc) all of which have many years of tweaking and testing behind them.

One big advantage of H264 now is also hardware support --- essential in low-CPU devices like mobiles and even netbooks. Without that, any other codec would have to be several times more efficient at decoding than H264 just to keep up (this is less of an issue on a beefy desktop or laptop which has enough resources to spare). Not to say other codecs shouldn't be considered, but the lead-time for such hardware support would be on the order of years.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:47 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Er, we're trying to encourage them to exert "considerable effort and expense" because it's in all our interests. And no, copyright isn't enough to protect inventions, whether or not they include copyrightable elements.

How is it in all of our interests to have locked-down, patent encumbered video formats? People would have figured this stuff out eventually without the patent system because it's an interesting problem and practical software would still be covered under copyright.

Look at Real Media, for example. Was their early success bolstered by patents, or was it simply their physical implementation? Without patents on stuff like this, there would still be a HUGE incentive for Google (which owns youtube) to pay for general research.

Obviously the patent system works in some cases, obviously it does not work in other cases.
Plus, it really hurts Linux advocacy. "It can't play MP3s? It can't play this kind of video or that kind of video?" "Well, it could, but a bunch of fat guys with beards decided that's against their ideology, so you have to install a bunch of packages with names like 'gstreamer-ugly' to do what every other desktop OS does out of the box".
Well, it would also be illegal to include out of the box without a license. Also, everyone currently has to download flash to view video online, which isn't really that different.
posted by delmoi at 2:17 PM on March 21, 2010


Without patents on stuff like this, there would still be a HUGE incentive for Google (which owns youtube) to pay for general research.

Well, it's not like we're not doing that anyway. That's what the On2 acquisition was about. They've only been with us for a few weeks but obviously there will be more coming out of that.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:24 PM on March 21, 2010


I hadn't realized that H.264 used arithmetic coding. The patents on arithmetic coding are a particularly infamous example of an algorithm patent inhibiting the use of that algorithm. A primary reason we still use gzip's Limpel-Ziv and Huffman compression instead of arithmetic coding is because of patents. Are all the core arithmetic coding patents part of MPEG-LA's licensing portfolio? What a mess.

One more crazy thing about patent law: it creates more liability for people who make an effort to educate themselves. I learned long ago to never research patents in any area I'm interested in, to avoid any possibility of triple damages for deliberate infringement. Ignorance, in this case, is literally a defense. Which sounds absurdly theoretical until you're at a tech conference and a goon presses a CD-ROM into your hand with a handshake and says "btw, that CD contains my patent on tech X that you are infringing". (Actually happened to me, I wish I had the presence of mind to drop the CD on the floor.)
posted by Nelson at 2:37 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


delmoi: How is it in all of our interests to have locked-down, patent encumbered video formats? People would have figured this stuff out eventually without the patent system because it's an interesting problem and practical software would still be covered under copyright.

I've often given that though serious consideration. I don't think it is true. "Public domain" research doesn't follow through; it is typically content to prove a problem could be solved, and general guidelines on solving it. Those general guidelines were laid down ages ago for video, but the specifics have required a lot of hard work. Public domain research is not good at doing hard work; as soon as the "interesting" has worn thin, they are on to more esoteric things.


delmoi: Without patents on stuff like this, there would still be a HUGE incentive for Google (which owns youtube) to pay for general research.

Ah, this is a better argument; now we have a well funded company with a financial incentive to have a better codec. This, on its face, definitely seems good. There would be no particular reason for google to keep it secret, either, since in their model more adoption makes more money. I do see two flaws though:

- On a general scale, the google model is not the regular model. Most companies do not run off something like an advertising model, where more eyeballs is the goal, and "giving your stuff away" makes money because of the more eyeballs. Most companies have to survive on a more traditional model, and their is not obvious transition; there is only so much money in advertising. So it doesn't scale.

- Can you get to this position (of being profitable for google to fund research) without the codec in the first place? To get the financial need, you need lots of users. To get lots of users, you need a successful codec (the very encumbered VP6 in this case), plus some clever flash technology, plus some level of ubiquitousness of flash. The pressing need for cutting down the bandwidth while upping the quality would not exist, otherwise. You end up with a chicken and egg problem. Of course, a company could fund the research on the speculation that video will be big, but they want a piece of the action in return for the speculation ... they want patents. After all, there is no guarantee they will be the provider of the content (or carrier) in return for their kick-ass codec.

Also, in this vein, google is in dominant market position; if they have their own (protected) codec, they could likely charge for it; since it is the 3rd parties interest to support google, then they will play. Google gets paid double this way. Google shies away from this model (it is exceedingly dangerous), but it does cast doubt on the incentive for making it free.

I've rambled enough :) Bottom line is that just because a helluva a lot of bad software patents have been granted doesn't mean the idea of software patents is flawed, just the execution. Much like video codecs.
posted by Bovine Love at 2:39 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The other horse in the HTML5 codec race is On2 and its suite of TrueMotion video codecs, particularly VP6. On2 is now owned by Google, and there's some hope Google will end up licensing the codec royalty free for everyone to use in HTML5. That would be lovely, but there's no word on whether it will happen. (Or can happen: depends on what patents On2's technology steps on and what license terms On2 has.)

On2/VP6 has been mentioned in some of the previous comments in this thread, just wanted to call it out explicitly.
posted by Nelson at 2:58 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


VP6 is only middling good. VP7 is definitely better, but seems to have some flaws (don't know specifics, but has had some hiccups in adoption, could have been corporate attitude). VP6 also doesn't seem friendly to hardware acceleration. They need a codec that can do 1080p without killing the pipe or the machine. VP6 is not there.
posted by Bovine Love at 3:03 PM on March 21, 2010


I've often given that though serious consideration. I don't think it is true. "Public domain" research doesn't follow through; it is typically content to prove a problem could be solved, and general guidelines on solving it.

So what? The actual implementation would be protected by copyright. If someone wanted to make an applied version of those techniques, they still could, there would just be less money, but not no money. So there would be less research. But that would still be plenty.

THAT'S HOW THE VAST MAJORITY OF SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT WORKS

It's just the strange case of audio and video codecs where patent issues seem to exist, probably because of the hardware background. But the idea that audio and video software couldn't be done using a general software business model is weird. (Yes, there are still patents, but they are hardly ever enforced)
posted by delmoi at 3:11 PM on March 21, 2010


delmoi, phliar, JHarris: Have a look at the website of the Fraunhofer Society, which happens to hold the large majority of H.264 patents (as well as most other MPEG patents). These aren't patent trolls, these aren't "hiding behind patent-lawyers shills". This is the main applied research institution in Germany, a non-profit foundation that runs research institutes going from the Fraunhofer Institute for Algorithms and Scientific Computing to the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology. Its main source of funding are patent royalties, in particular from just those MPEG patents. To pretend that "it would have been done anyway" is to display an abysmal ignorance of the requirements of applied research.

As for liability: this isn't a problem that is exclusive to the software industry. It's something that other industries have learnt to cope and live with decades ago. It's a drawback of the patent system that can only be addressed by improving the processing of patent information (something for which information technology could actually be extremely useful), but in the real world, the cases of unwitting infringers being suddenly blindsided with lawsuits are far, very, very far from the norm.

Those that advocate "copyright over patents" don't appear to understand how either copyright or patents work and what they respectively protect. You can't protect an algorithm, no matter how clever, with copyright. You can prevent people from simply copying your code without your approval, but that's it.

It simply isn't true that patents are purposely drafted obscurely: if a patent attorney does that, he's doing a bad job, because a patent application that doesn't disclose the invention will be rejected.

JHarris You might want to tell Apple about that "went out of fashion" thing, they seem to think they're still in vogue. Or maybe their iPhone interface patents are just retro hipster preening.

As gyc has pointed out: how are those "submarine patents"? In fact, they're anything but submarine: Steve Jobs has been boasting about "boy, have we patented it", ever since he first presented the iPhone to the world. These are possibly the highest visibility patents ever, and you can bet that there are people at Nokia, Google, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, etc., etc. that know them inside out by now.

phliar Patents are a way of preventing others from using their efforts so they don't compete with you. There is no "independent discovery" exemption for a patent like there is for copyrights.

The whole point of patents is to encourage disclosure. Disclosure through the publication of the patent, or through a defensive publication. If you disclose first, there's nobody who'll be able to validly claim a patent on what you do afterwards. If they patented it first, sorry, you may have invented it on your own, but the idea was already out there (especially after the patent application was published).
posted by Skeptic at 3:11 PM on March 21, 2010


delmoi: If the ideas behind h.264 are so obvious, then why were there crappy, inefficient video codecs for decades before h.264 and other modern codecs were invented? After all, it's not like there wasn't tons of money to be made and academic prestige to be had, nor was it for lack of interest in the problem.

Hindsight bias when trying to determine whether something is obvious or not is a big problem. That's why for a long time the test for obviousness required putting together prior art references that showed all the elements of the invention and a reason to combine them. (Of course, the KSR decision did away with that and now obviousness can be based on fuzzy notions of "common sense" reasoning.)

JHarris: Mozilla's potential liability is likely tiny. There are two major measures for patent infringement damages: reasonable royalty and lost profits, with reasonable royalty being the preferred and more typical measure. In Mozilla's case the reasonable royalty would be zero dollars because it distributes Firefox for free and as a practical matter can't really charge a royalty anyway. If MPEG LA could even get a lost profits measure (which is unlikely), its damages would still probably be minimal for various technical reasons that I don't want to waste space on here. And because of things like the eBay decision, an injunction is highly unlikely.

Contemporary patents are deliberately written in obfuscated language, to specifically be difficult to find via keyword search or to be understood by rival inventors. We're a long way from the originally intended function of patents encouraging inventors to share ideas.

Citation please. I've taken numerous patent law and drafting courses. I'm a registered patent agent. I'm involved in the administration of a moderate-sized, international patent portfolio, the patents for which are handled by a major law firm. I've never, ever heard of using deliberately obfuscatory language for either of the reasons you give. And indeed, using such language would likely open one up to a malpractice suit because one would be risking the issuance and validity of the patent for a purpose of questionable value.
posted by jedicus at 3:20 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nelson : I hadn't realized that H.264 used arithmetic coding.

Just about Everything uses arithmetic coding as the last step in squeezing out any remaining predictability in the bit stream. So yes, H.264 uses it.

That doesn't, however, count as "the" heart of MPEG4 (and MPEG2, and Theora, and just about every modern video compression technique). As its core, you have nothing more than the good ol' 2d DCT transform combined with chroma downsampling - Same idea as JPEG, optimized for working on temporal differences rather than directly on a given frame.

Of course, saying that amounts to describing a Bugatti Veyron as a device for converting a bunch of little explosions into forward momentum.
posted by pla at 3:23 PM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Patents are not required to profit from your efforts -- copyright is completely sufficient for that.

Copyright and patents protect completely orthogonal aspects of a piece of software or other technology. Copyright, by definition, does not protect functional aspects of software. Patents, by definition, can only protect functional aspects (not counting design patents, which are really a whole 'nother beast entirely).

But even so, no, neither copyright nor patents are required to profit from ones efforts. The argument is that intellectual property rights encourage ideas to be brought to the market and the market in turn gives feedback that encourages further development of valuable ideas. Thus, in the end, society benefits.

Patents are a way of preventing others from using their efforts so they don't compete with you.

And copyright isn't based on excluding others how, exactly? You do realize that the independent discovery defense almost never comes up, right? And that as long as something has been published that the burden is on the defendant to prove independent creation? And you know that the ease of copying digital things coupled with the universal publication mechanism that is the Internet means that it would be damned difficulty indeed to prove independent development outside of a rigorous clean room environment, right?
posted by jedicus at 3:29 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


To pretend that "it would have been done anyway" is to display an abysmal ignorance of the requirements of applied research.

To pretend that software is as difficult as most "Applied research" displays an abysmal ignorance of software development. It's something that anyone sitting in front of a computer can do. You don't need special materials, lab coats, beakers, vacuum chambers, centrifuges or anything else that costs money. The only cost is the researchers salaries.

the fact that it's software, and not hardware is what makes the cost structure so low. It's nice that the Fraunhofer Society does all this research, but to pretend like video codecs wouldn't exist without them and their patents is ridiculous. Look at the Linux kernel, or Mozilla for example of enormous amounts of effort without even using copyright protection to make money.

Or look at any software company that doesn't spend all its time suing people or collecting patent royalties (i.e. most of them)

--

Btw, are you ever going to explain why you think that arithmetic coding context switching patent you linked to earlier is non-obvious? It still seems pretty obvious to me.

Since you're the one who actually linked to it, unless you can explain it's non-obviousness I think your credibility is shot.
posted by delmoi at 3:31 PM on March 21, 2010


Btw, are you ever going to explain why you think that arithmetic coding context switching patent you linked to earlier is non-obvious? It still seems pretty obvious to me.

Well then, if you can show that it would have been obvious in 2003 to a person having ordinary skill in the art of video codec design, then there are people who would love for you to tell them so they can invalidate the patent. They'd probably pay you handsomely for your trouble, too.
posted by jedicus at 3:38 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


And copyright isn't based on excluding others how, exactly?

Copyright can't exclude someone from using something they wrote themselves. I.E. If I write an implementation of some algorithm, someone else is going to have to do the work of re-writing it from scratch, which isn't always easy. But video and audio codecs are generally pretty small and would be easy to reimplement. Huge things like operating systems would be much more difficult.

Anyway, no one is claiming that patents have zero benefit, the argument is that there also negatives and that in the case of software, the negatives outweigh the benefits.
The argument is that intellectual property rights encourage ideas to be brought to the market and the market in turn gives feedback that encourages further development of valuable ideas. Thus, in the end, society benefits.
Except NO ONE learns anything by reading software patents. In fact, software writers are actively discouraged from even looking at them, for fear that they might 'knowingly infringe'. Maybe if there's some super-awesome idea that gets patented people might take notice, but in general these things come out in academic papers first.
posted by delmoi at 3:40 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well then, if you can show that it would have been obvious in 2003 to a person having ordinary skill in the art of video codec design, then there are people who would love for you to tell them so they can invalidate the patent. They'd probably pay you handsomely for your trouble, too.
The arithmetic coding doesn't really have anything to do with video codecs, it's pretty generalized to any data, and I'm quite sure I learned about arithmetic coding before 2003. There's really only one difference, and that's switching between multiple probability contexts. But really, there's nothing non-obvious about it, not that I can see.
posted by delmoi at 3:44 PM on March 21, 2010


In fact, software writers are actively discouraged from even looking at them, for fear that they might 'knowingly infringe'.

You've already had this argument with jedicus before. In fact, some software companies (notably Microsoft) do follow that policy. I personally wouldn't advice it.
posted by Skeptic at 3:47 PM on March 21, 2010


software writers are actively discouraged from even looking at them, for fear that they might 'knowingly infringe'.

To the extent there's any real truth behind that hoary old bit of internet wisdom it's in ignorance of the law. First: the term is 'willful infringement' not 'knowing infringement.' Second, it was never very common. Third, since the 2007 In re Seagate case willful infringement has been virtually nonexistent because the standard for willfulness is now extremely high.

But really, there's nothing non-obvious about it, not that I can see.

Funny, then, that Mozilla is so worked up over a bunch of patents so obvious that you can see right through 'em after a cursory glance. At a cost of $2520 per patent Mozilla could throw them into ex parte reexamination and have 'em all taken care of in a year or so.
posted by jedicus at 3:51 PM on March 21, 2010


delmoi You obviously haven't bothered to look up the claims, which defines the actual scope of the patent:

1. Apparatus for entropy-encoding a symbol sequence of information symbols to obtain entropy-encoded information symbols, the symbol sequence having a start symbol, comprising:

an arithmetic encoder for arithmetically encoding a symbol of the symbol sequence based on probability information for the symbol, the symbol being part of a symbol set, to produce the entropy-encoded information symbols;

a context modeler for deriving the probability information for the symbol based on a context of the symbol, the context including one or more context symbols processed by the arithmetic encoder prior to processing the symbol, the context modeler including an initializer for initializing the context modeler by determining and providing initialization probability information to the arithmetic encoder, the initialization probability information to be used by the arithmetic encoder for processing the start symbol, wherein the initializer is operative to determine the initialization probability information based on an estimation of symbol statistics relating to the start symbol such that an initialization probability distribution is different from an equi-probable distribution for all symbols of the symbol set.


Now, was that obvious?
posted by Skeptic at 3:55 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, Skeptic, it is obvious to anyone aware of arithmetic coding. I'm not well educated in video compression but I was aware of arithmetic coding as a general purpose compression technology. I had always assumed that it was used to encode video by some codecs. It was obvious to me.

And that's the test right? Obvious to someone educated in the state of the art? I'm not eve near the state of the art but then again arithmetic coding was first patented in 1977.
posted by joegester at 4:10 PM on March 21, 2010


I wonder what the world would be like if Newton had been able to patent calculus.
posted by Pyry at 4:12 PM on March 21, 2010


Now, was that obvious?

Skeptic, I asked you what you thought was non obvious about it. Do you actually understand a word of what you pasted? Because I did read the patent, and the claims, and I explained what they meant (complete with Wikipedia links)

The fundamental thing they're talking about is switching the probability estimation used to determine the likelihood of a symbol based on the context, and then changing it when you enter a new context.

Can you explain, in your own words, why you think that's non-obvious? Remember, you're the one who picked that patent as an example. Can you even understand a word of it?
posted by delmoi at 4:20 PM on March 21, 2010


And that's the test right? Obvious to someone educated in the state of the art?

Obvious to someone having ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made is the high level formulation. The actual nuts and bolts are more complicated. Basically you have to show pieces of prior art that identify the elements of the claimed invention and a reason to put them together, except that "common sense" and "common creativity" can now supply some of the elements and the reason for combining them.

So if you could use pieces of prior art (e.g. published documents) to show that in 2003 it would have been obvious to one having ordinary skill in the art of video codec design to employ the particular arithmetic coding scheme described in the patent (including the contextual probability distributions) then, yeah, you could get the claims invalidated.

But that's just the thing: you can't complain about the patents being super obvious wastes of space and also claim that they're going to crush Firefox, which is used by millions of people and supported and used by businesses, many of which have deep pockets and are experience patent litigators. If the patents are obvious then it will be cheap to invalidate them. Indeed, not only would Mozilla, Google, IBM, etc want to invalidate them but so would every hardware manufacturer that already pays a license to MPEG LA.
posted by jedicus at 4:24 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Actually firefox makes money from people using the search bar, they get a cut of advertizing revenue when they send someone somewhere using one of the built in search engines From their Financial FAQ:
How does Mozilla generate revenue?

The majority of this revenue is generated from the search functionality in Mozilla Firefox from partners such as Google, Yahoo, Amazon, EBay, and others. Mozilla takes in additional revenue from donations, online affiliate programs, the Mozilla Store, and income on our invested assets. In 2008, we expanded our Firefox partnerships with new firms such as Yandex (Russia Search), Canonical (Ubuntu), and Nokia (Mobile).
So their not dependent on any donors. And in fact, they made almost 80 million in '08.
posted by delmoi at 4:38 PM on March 21, 2010


I'm not eve near the state of the art but then again arithmetic coding was first patented in 1977.

And indeed the patent examiner considered a few dozen prior art documents including some fundamental papers on arithmetic coding from 1975 and 1978.

Here's a paper by the primary inventor of the patented invention describing Context-Based Adaptive Binary Arithmetic Coding [pdf], as published in IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems for Video Technology. This is essentially the invention claimed in the patent. The paper, written as it is for a somewhat different audience and a different purpose than a patent application (not to mention written by the scientists and not a patent attorney), may be a bit more understandable. It also does a good job of explaining the problems the inventors were trying to solve. For example, they developed a fast, multiplication-free, table-based variant of binary arithmetic coding so that the algorithm could be efficiently implemented in embedded hardware.
posted by jedicus at 4:39 PM on March 21, 2010


I also don't see any evidence that H264 patents are holding back competing video codecs. There are many video codecs out there (the HTML5 debate focuses on Ogg and H264 because thats what browsers have now, but they're hardly the only ones).

H264 taken as a whole was certainly not "obvious" at the time. Individual claims may have been, but IIRC a patent isn't invalidated just because one of the more general claims can't hold up. I am definitely not a lawyer though, so who knows.
posted by wildcrdj at 4:59 PM on March 21, 2010


delmoi I'm not interested at all in arguing myself whether that particular patent is non-obvious. Because:

a) Arguing solidly whether something is obvious or not, especially a claim of that length and complexity, usually requires a lot more effort that what you've put into it so far. It involves considering every single feature in the claim, comparing it with the state of art at the filing date, and determining whether it would have been obvious for the skilled person, with his knowledge of that prior art, to put it all together without inventing anything himself. And this without falling in hindsight thinking. It's hard work, I do plenty of it during my working days, and I sure as Hell won't do it during the weekend, for free.

b) I am not a video encoding/decoding expert. Again, I'd need quite some time to work myself into the subject, and I've better things to do with my life. NO, I don't understand much about that particular patent. I picked it up as merely an example, the oldest patent from among the whole bunch contributed by Fraunhofer to MPEG-LA.

c) Although it's highly unlikely, I may one day find myself trying to get that patent revoked, and it would be embarrassing, to say the least, to be contradicted by myself.

Now, you started arguing that everything about H.264 was "pretty intuitive". The ball is in your camp, not mine. You say that how the initialization probability information provided by the initializer is determined based on an estimation of symbol statistics relating to the start symbol would have been obvious. Why do you think it was obvious?
posted by Skeptic at 5:03 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


How is it in all of our interests to have locked-down, patent encumbered video formats?

That's not what I said. I said it was in our interests to incentivise people to expend considerable effort and expense. That's what patents purportedly do. That the US implementation is broken is a separate issue

People would have figured this stuff out eventually without the patent system because it's an interesting problem and practical software would still be covered under copyright.

That claim needs proof, and handwaving about Ogg, the Linux kernel and Firefox ain't it. Ogg is technically off the pace, Linux has been trying to crack the desktop for a decade and still is while the commercial companies have moved on to mobile, and if Firefox and the Webkit browsers haven't swapped places within five years I'll eat my Netscape Navigator floppies. (Sooner, if they don't buckle to h.264).

Is good work done by people operating without making use of the financial incentives enabled by copyright and patents? Sure. Are their alternative incentives anything like as good at producing new and ground-breaking work? Nope, at least so far. It's all copy and clone.

So their not dependent on any donors.
Well, except for all those people who decide to pay for search referrals. Consider what Firefox would do if Google stopped paying for searches. Take out the Google search box? Switch it to Ask.com? Google's search payments are 2/10 commercial investments and 8/10 largesse, and everyone knows it.
posted by bonaldi at 5:12 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Indeed, the patent system, by encouraging publication, has been an important part of this exchange of information since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Yes, this is the PR line that is trotted out by supporters of the patent system. Many of us don't buy the spin. We see it as a system to create and protect entitlement going right back to its ‘by royal decree’ days.

It is quite obvious from any examination of the modern world that the patent system blocks and stymies innovation rather than encouraging it. The present day situation is now a gross magnification of the flaws inherent in the idea of patents that were there from the beginning.
posted by Pranksome Quaine at 5:14 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pranksome Quaine We see it as a system to create and protect entitlement going right back to its ‘by royal decree’ days.

Considering that the first invention patents were issued by the Republic of Venice, that already shows your ignorance.
posted by Skeptic at 5:20 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is quite obvious from any examination of the modern world that the patent system blocks and stymies innovation rather than encouraging it. The present day situation is now a gross magnification of the flaws inherent in the idea of patents that were there from the beginning.

It isn't obvious to me, I think you need to explain it. The modern world is chock full of innovation; I mean, bursting, exploding, innovating at a totally insane rate. The advances in the last few decades are truly astounding, and the innovation continues. In fact, video codecs like H.264 provide incredibly high quality video at bandwidth rates that were practically inconceivable. That IS innovation. H.264 IS innovative (despite that delmoi could have easily invented it himself, as it is obvious (*)). All on the back of the patent system. So, what part of the stymieing of innovation is obvious? The results would seem to say otherwise.

(*) Apologies for the sarcasm, delmoi, but it was just too easy :) Seriously though, you're giving the kind of dismissive "oh it just uses math" kind of hand-waving and seriously selling the specifics short. The devil very much is in the details, and it has taken a long time to get this good; I look forward to a great many more improvements. I hope they are freer and more open, but I have doubts that the money and the ability are so easily peeled apart.
posted by Bovine Love at 5:25 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm aware of the Republic of Venice system skeptic. But the modern patent system and body of law really began with the Statute of Monopolies enacted by King James I in 1623.
posted by Pranksome Quaine at 5:27 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Skeptic, I asked you what you thought was non obvious about it. Do you actually understand a word of what you pasted?

Delmoi, you're not a troll, but you are acting like one here. You keep arguing, saying things that aren't true and sticking with them even when people explain to you why you're wrong. Give it a rest.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:41 PM on March 21, 2010


p.s. As for displaying ignorance Skeptic, I think perhaps you might not have a very good understanding of the governance traditions of the Republic of Venice. They had an aristocracy. The head of state was called The Doge (Duke) and was elected by this aristocracy. This system of government is called a crowned republic.
posted by Pranksome Quaine at 5:47 PM on March 21, 2010


19 minutes to go pwn-hunting on wikipedia? Are you on dial up?
posted by bonaldi at 5:49 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


It was an oligarchy indeed. It still didn't have any royal decrees.
posted by Skeptic at 5:49 PM on March 21, 2010


Let them charge for their encoding patents and hardware accelerated decoding, if they must. Let us decode all content for free. - Nelson
Problem solved if the H.264 owners would simply supply or authorize a player plug-in for Mozilla browsers. It would seem a very small sacrifice to assure universal access to H.264 content, and they'd make their money from licencing creator apps. Same business model as Flash, yes? - Artful Codger

I've got a big problem with these types of arguments. Why is it OK to leave content creation proprietary & patent encumbered? It is not a solution. It's just trying to please everyone but it doesn't fix the problem.

What if basic HTML text was encumbered, so anyone who wanted to put text content on websites had to purchase proprietary text authoring software? The Flash 'business model' might work well from Adobe's perspective but it causes problems for everyone else - isn't this the reason for the push for the 'video' tag in HTML5?

If video is going to be part of web standards, then the codec needs to be royalty free. For everyone, including content authors - not just content consumers.
posted by joz at 6:11 PM on March 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


What if basic HTML text was encumbered, so anyone who wanted to put text content on websites had to purchase proprietary text authoring software?

If basic HTML had been encumbered, the web would never have taken off in the first place.

People sometimes act as if GIF was the first time any of this occurred to anybody. It wasn't; there's been an awareness of the problems associated with patents for a long time. In general, people route around them where possible -- in fact, this is why HTML won and Gopher died. Berners-Lee had to win some very public concessions from Cern to make sure the stuff he was inventing was very free. Gopher, on the other hand, had largely theoretical patent concerns, and it died because of them.

When people and companies flock behind a patent-encumbered technology, it's usually for a damn good reason -- often because there isn't a free alternative of similar quality available or possible. Same case here.
posted by bonaldi at 6:19 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Except NO ONE learns anything by reading software patents.

Well, that's not true. I've learned things by reading software patents because often the related published journal articles are behind paywalls whereas the patents are freely available from multiple sources.

But the broader point is that, yes, most people go to the journal article or the white paper or the standards document rather than the patent because those documents are written for a different purpose and often by a different writer. But the reason those journal articles, white papers, and standards documents exist is because the underlying technology is protected by a patent. Without patent protection, many of these technologies would be kept a trade secret and available only in the form of a closed source implementation.

Obviously a lot of research would still be publicized, particularly academic research. But an academic paper doesn't actually result in a product being brought to market, which is really what we care about at the end of the day: does the technology improve human lives. And in most cases commercializing the technology in the form of a product or a service in the market is the best way to do that. So patents give a property right around which a company can be formed and a product can be commercialized while both requiring public disclosure in the form of the patent and facilitating broader public disclosure in the form of journal articles, etc.
posted by jedicus at 6:35 PM on March 21, 2010


Why is it OK to leave content creation proprietary & patent encumbered? It is not a solution.

I don't think it's a solution either. My proposal is a disappointing compromise. I think at this point H.264 is gonna be the deal we get, it sure isn't going to be Theora. And it's going to suck if Firefox won't support it. So as a compromise, get some licensing terms that allow software browsers to at least render H.264 without paying royalties. And in the meantime, keep working on a better free technology. (If it's even possible to create a patent-free video codec right now. I have my doubts.)
posted by Nelson at 7:02 PM on March 21, 2010


NO, I don't understand much about that particular patent. I picked it up as merely an example, the oldest patent from among the whole bunch contributed by Fraunhofer to MPEG-LA.
Well, you picked it.
The ball is in your camp, not mine. You say that how the initialization probability information provided by the initializer is determined based on an estimation of symbol statistics relating to the start symbol would have been obvious.
My understanding was that that the start symbol is a special case that simply tells you which context to use. The symbol basically says "Use context #4" followed by data until you see an end symbol (followed by another start symbol) That part wouldn't even need to be explained because it's so obvious.

You could look at any network protocol that can send multiple chunks of data in different formats to see an example of something similar. So, for example a keep-alive HTTP connection where you send multiple files down, or FTP, or whatever. They would all use start symbols and escaping to encode multiple parts.

But that's also not really the basic point of the patent. The basic point is switching contexts in order to use a better probability distribution for each section.
That claim needs proof, and handwaving about Ogg, the Linux kernel and Firefox ain't it. Ogg is technically off the pace, Linux has been trying to crack the desktop for a decade and still is while the commercial companies have moved on to mobile, and if Firefox and the Webkit browsers haven't swapped places within five years I'll eat my Netscape Navigator floppies. (Sooner, if they don't buckle to h.264). -- bonaldi
Okay so first of all, millions of people use android or Palm Pres, which use the Linux kernel. Millions of people use web services that run on Linux servers. Just because you don't personally use Linux on your PC doesn't mean it hasn't had an impact on you life. And millions of people use Firefox today

But the question isn't "Would people use it". It's "would they exist." Because the argument was that without patents no one would have ever crated a video codec. But if you look at other really difficult software problems, there are open source implementations. Those OSS implementations existence is indifferent to the patent system.

And that's aside from software that's not patented. John Carmak, who works at id software, which created Wolfenstine 3d, Doom, etc famously said he'd rather quit then file a software patent. But id software has been hugely influential and made a ton of money selling there proprietary (copyright protected) software.

And that's what I'm talking about, people will create something without the carrot of patent protection. It might not be as good as the patented thing, but it's still works. Linux might not be as slick as Windows 7 from a UI perspective, but it works. Ogg Theora works even if it doesn't work as well as H.264. So if people couldn't get patents on software, stuff would still exist it just wouldn't be as good.

We would probably have even more awesome software if the government was spending $50 billion a year in grants for people to make awesome software. But they're not.
(*) Apologies for the sarcasm, delmoi, but it was just too easy :) Seriously though, you're giving the kind of dismissive "oh it just uses math" kind of hand-waving and seriously selling the specifics short. The devil very much is in the details, and it has taken a long time to get this good;
Heh. I don't disagree. The problem is that the "Specifics" (i.e. the best parameterization) aren't really the inventions that they are trying to patent. Like if they were just saying "this is the best table to use to seed an arithmetic coding probability estimator", then you could just perturb those tables a little to get around the patent. We have a patent system that is supposed to reward "ideas" and not all the effort that goes into perfecting it.

It's like gene patents. It could take years of work to isolate a gene, but once it's isolated you can't really say the gene was your Idea. It was always there.

I mean, it's a fundamental tenant of CS theory that any problem can be reduced to another problem in the same complexity class, that's why Software patents just aren't a good idea.
posted by delmoi at 7:27 PM on March 21, 2010


Skeptic, I asked you what you thought was non obvious about it. Do you actually understand a word of what you pasted? [-- me]
Delmoi, you're not a troll, but you are acting like one here. You keep arguing, saying things that aren't true and sticking with them even when people explain to you why you're wrong. Give it a rest. -- Blazecock Pileon
Cute. But he admitted he didn't understand the patent, so the comment that you excerpted was, in fact, correct. Also, if you think some other statement I made was incorrect, please specify.
posted by delmoi at 7:37 PM on March 21, 2010


Nelson, I agree, that's the most likely outcome - a disappointing compromise.

It kind of felt like with the HTML5 video tag there was a chance to improve things. But now I realise the improvement is going to be limited to less Flash content. In 5 years time. Maybe. :)

It would be nice if we ended up with a standard video codec that was both technically good, and free. I feel that if we have to compromise, it shouldn't be on the 'free' part.
posted by joz at 7:42 PM on March 21, 2010


I work at Microsoft. We (engineers etc) are not allowed to read other companies patents. I am obviously not a patent expert, but I personally know of (IMO) mind-bogglingly obvious features and ideas that have been designed and created, and then removed from the product before release because the legal department tells us that infringes on someone else's patent. I'm thinking I should leave software development and become a patent troll.
posted by jacalata at 12:04 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


And that's what I'm talking about, people will create something without the carrot of patent protection. It might not be as good as the patented thing, but it's still works. Linux might not be as slick as Windows 7 from a UI perspective, but it works. Ogg Theora works even if it doesn't work as well as H.264. So if people couldn't get patents on software, stuff would still exist it just wouldn't be as good.

The Trabant also worked. The East Germans still dumped it as soon as they could get their hands on much more sophisticated cars "encumbered" by thousands of patents filed by the West German car industry...
posted by Skeptic at 2:28 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay so first of all, millions of people use android or Palm Pres, which use the Linux kernel.
You mean open source was able to move quickly (helped by Google's cash) to copy the iPhone? Great stuff.

Millions of people use web services that run on Linux servers.
Yes, the famous Linux consolation prize: it managed to take over in servers by offering a product roughly as good as Solaris for no money at time when Sun was putting the hurt on. Nothing they did was revolutionary; and the desktop was always the goal ... the goal they just can't seem to hit.

And millions of people use Firefox today
Which has no bearing on its quality, only on its relative quality compared to IE.

But the question isn't "Would people use it". It's "would they exist." Because the argument was that without patents no one would have ever crated a video codec.
No, that's a new argument, one that it would have looked more reasonable for you to take a pop at. The actual argument was that no-one would ever have crated a good codec on the level of h.264.

But if you look at other really difficult software problems, there are open source implementations. Those OSS implementations existence is indifferent to the patent system.
Implementations are nothing to this argument. We're talking about inventions and innovations. It's the expensive, effortful work of inventing something the first time that patents are supposed to encourage.

Ogg Theora (although it was, like Firefox's ancestors, created by a commercial company hoping to exploit it, remember) is to good video codecs as Open Office is to real word processors.

And that's what I'm talking about, people will create something without the carrot of patent protection. It might not be as good as the patented thing, but it's still works. Linux might not be as slick as Windows 7 from a UI perspective, but it works. Ogg Theora works even if it doesn't work as well as H.264. So if people couldn't get patents on software, stuff would still exist it just wouldn't be as good.

Well, er, precisely. If it was a choice between the patent system and UIs that looked like Linux, Ogg videos and in general a world of less-good, shittier software I know which I'd choose.

We would probably have even more awesome software if the government was spending $50 billion a year in grants for people to make awesome software. But they're not.

They are: they're granting patents on novel inventions and enshrining the patent system in law. That's easily worth more than $50bn, and it comes without them having to actually spend $50bn.
posted by bonaldi at 5:08 AM on March 22, 2010


They are: they're granting patents on novel inventions and enshrining the patent system in law. That's easily worth more than $50bn, and it comes without them having to actually spend $50bn.

And this without considering that, if governments were actively dictating how all IT research money was spent, we'd probably still working on increasing the speed of punchcard readers.
posted by Skeptic at 6:36 AM on March 22, 2010


bonaldi : Yes, the famous Linux consolation prize: it managed to take over in servers by offering a product roughly as good as Solaris for no money at time when Sun was putting the hurt on. Nothing they did was revolutionary; and the desktop was always the goal ... the goal they just can't seem to hit.

I see this particular red herring spread all too often, but it really doesn't hold true.

Linux most certainly does work just fine as a desktop PC. It does, however, suffer from one major (and almost irreparable) shortcoming, in that when people say "not ready for the desktop", they really mean "Not XP" (and "Not 95" before that; we'll see if people actually like Win7 - Zeus knows Vista did more to boost Linux and Apple than anything either of those two camps could ever do for themselves).

Linux exists in the cracks of people fed up with paying the Microsoft tax for what we've come to see as basic functionality in our computers; and in all the major categories of application, you can see a similar, highly-functional alternative. Open Office, FireFox, ThunderBird. The three biggies people use their computers for. But not the only uses.

One that constantly bites Apple, games, also affects Linux just as much (if not more-so). And the countless lesser applications we take for granted - Does Linux have something like that? Does it require learning an entirely new program to do something we already know?

If (and I mean that as a really big "if") you could run all the same software under Linux as you could on a Windows machine, you'd only notice a few minor differences in how the clipboard works, a few global key bindings, and the occasional quirk here and there. If people could choose between "$200 for Windows, $300 for Office, and you get a free browser you can't get rid of even if you try", vs "Free with a few quirks", which do you think they would pick? But of course, it does go further than just that, so we end up with this perpetual "Will Linux finally make it to the desktop this year?"

And, for some credibility, I can say this as someone who uses (almost) all free (speech, not beer) software on Windows. And I can switch back and forth between Windows and Linux seamlessly. I do, however, still run Windows as my primary desktop for the sole reason I've already mentioned, that parenthetical "almost" a few words back. Enough software simply refuses to support Linux (and Wine will only get you so far) that you flat-out need to choose a side - Render unto Caesar, or go without. That choice, however, has nothing to do with Linux itself.
posted by pla at 8:10 AM on March 22, 2010


The Trabant also worked. The East Germans still dumped it as soon as they could get their hands on much more sophisticated cars "encumbered" by thousands of patents filed by the West German car industry...
That's such a red herring I don't know where to begin. But first of all I don't think the communists were spending a lot of time enforcing capitalist patents. Second of all, video is video. PNG files don't look any worse then GIFs, Ogg Vorbis files don't sound any worse then MP3s. Patent un-encumbered files work fine. The problem here is that people want to standardize on patent-protected formats, rather then open ones. Yes, the compression rate is lower, but when we're all rocking 100mbps downlinks in a few years it's not going to matter that much.
No, that's a new argument, one that it would have looked more reasonable for you to take a pop at. The actual argument was that no-one would ever have crated a good codec on the level of h.264.
That just seems like a pointless question. Who cares how "good" it is as long as it's "good enough". In a few years we'll all have a lot more bandwidth anyway.
Well, er, precisely. If it was a choice between the patent system and UIs that looked like Linux, Ogg videos and in general a world of less-good, shittier software I know which I'd choose.
Well, first of all everyone says Unbuntu looks nice now. I use an OS from Microsoft, which doesn't even look at patents when they write code, and doesn't make much of their money from patent licensing, and doesn't use their patent portfolio to stop anyone from writing competitive software as far as I know. They don't need to, because the code bases are so huge that copyright is enough of a protection.
They are: they're granting patents on novel inventions and enshrining the patent system in law. That's easily worth more than $50bn, and it comes without them having to actually spend $50bn.
Instead of spending the money directly, they're forcing everyone else to spend it my granting economic rents. The argument is the net cost to society is higher to $50 billion dollars, where as a tax subsidized grant program would only cost society $50 billion. Because in addition to patent licensing fees, there's also opportunity cost for technology that's not used, like this HTML5 video fragmentation we're seeing now.
And this without considering that, if governments were actively dictating how all IT research money was spent, we'd probably still working on increasing the speed of punchcard readers.
Yeah, along with the internet that was created with government funding, and the the world wide web which created at CERN. That's just the dumbest thing I've heard in a while. The government has already played a huge role in creating software. The Internet and the web are the most obvious examples. I suppose you've never used the crappy, patent unencumbered Firefox browser either, right?

That's just a historically ignorant comment.
posted by delmoi at 8:56 AM on March 22, 2010


Yes, the compression rate is lower, but when we're all rocking 100mbps downlinks in a few years it's not going to matter that much.

I think you missed the point of who cares; it is Google that really really cares about compression rates. It costs them money, and very significant money. It is hard to get a hold on exact numbers, but estimates often run that YouTube occupies over 25% of all traffic (by volume, not transaction, obviously). They really really care. They have choosen H.264. The browsers can go along or not, but I know what the users will do; they will user the browser that works.

BTW, Firefox is almost certainly not patent unencumbered; no one has pursued it yet is all. It is practically impossible that it doesn't tread on numerous patents. Mind you, can't get blood out of a turnip, my mom always said. Mind you, Mozilla foundation isn't really a turnip these days. But other targets remain juicier.
posted by Bovine Love at 9:33 AM on March 22, 2010


delmoi I'm not at all a libertarian. I never claimed that governments didn't have an important role in developing IT. Indeed, they had, not just starting with the www, but even with Bomba.

However, a mixture of private sector incentives and government research is arguably the best seed for progress. Otherwise, state ventures such as Groupe Bull wouldn't have been such duds.

My point in citing the Trabant was to expose your "good enough" philosophy. The Trabant was "good enough". Except that it wasn't, once it came in contention with technology that had been developed thanks to the incentives provided with patents and good old capitalistic greed.
posted by Skeptic at 9:34 AM on March 22, 2010


delmoi : Second of all, video is video. PNG files don't look any worse then GIFs, Ogg Vorbis files don't sound any worse then MP3s. Patent un-encumbered files work fine. The problem here is that people want to standardize on patent-protected formats, rather then open ones. Yes, the compression rate is lower, but when we're all rocking 100mbps downlinks in a few years it's not going to matter that much.

Nearly 20 years ago now, I heard about this great new pilot program in my area by the local cable company. For just twice the price of dialup ISPs, you could get a 4.5Mbps asymmetric connection - Holy crap, 3x faster than a T1? And rollout went slow, but it lived up to the hype, for the most part. At peak times, it could get laggy, but still blew Dialup right out of the water.

Now, 20 years later, we have the cable/phone companies arguing with the FCC about how to define the word "broadband" and how to measure actual coverage. Meanwhile, my current best option involves paying twice what the cable company wants for a mere 1.5Mbit with half-second ping times and a daily usage cap. Most people in my area still use dialup.

Yes, we'll eventually have FTTP in the cities. And rural rollout will lag that by at least a good 20-30 years, basically twice the lifetime of a patent. And that, only in the US. Considering the entire globe, many places don't even have always-on dialup-quality connections.

So when you say they only differ in compression rates, yes, you speak the truth. Crank the bitrate, and any reasonable video codec will give a result arbitrary close to the original uncompressed video. To give you an idea of what a measly 50% means in the real world, though... I can almost watch crappy overcompressed 360p YouTube videos in realtime. Drop that by 50%, and I can manage the HD version in realtime; Add on another 50%, and I might as well not even bother following the plethora of SLYT links we get here in the Blue.


Oh, and by the way - In that same 20 years, the amount of bandwidth required to carry a "TV-quality" video signal went from 6Mhz (NTSC) to 600Mhz (1080p) - Basically the same amount that a typical nonrural home internet connection has increased in the same time. Only the advancement of rather sophisticated compression algorithms have made realtime video from the internet a possibility.
posted by pla at 9:44 AM on March 22, 2010


An embedded fonts thread
posted by Artw at 1:44 PM on March 22, 2010


That just seems like a pointless question. Who cares how "good" it is as long as it's "good enough". In a few years we'll all have a lot more bandwidth anyway.

People who want the best? The Trabant was good enough too, but it wasn't the best we were capable of. Inefficiencies matter, especially at the Google scale.

The difference between a "good enough" codec and a great one is real money, and also its inefficiences translate into wasted energy, which we're trying to conserve. I'd say enabling people and corporations to do their very best has a very real point.

there's also opportunity cost for technology that's not used, like this HTML5 video fragmentation we're seeing now.
Opportunity cost bites both ways. You reduce the protections for the outcome of R&D and the dollars that go into it will flow elsewhere.
posted by bonaldi at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2010


John Gruber notes the attention from MeFi.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:14 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow.

That doesn't happen every day.
posted by Artw at 2:19 PM on March 22, 2010


I wonder what the world would be like if Newton had been able to patent calculus.

Probably we'd all be stuck using his crappy notation instead of Leibniz's.
posted by robertc at 4:43 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Linux ... Nothing they did was revolutionary

Commoditizing the operating system was revolutionary.
posted by robertc at 4:49 PM on March 22, 2010


Probably we'd all be stuck using his crappy notation instead of Leibniz's.

Newton... ultimate submarine patenter!
posted by Artw at 4:51 PM on March 22, 2010


My point in citing the Trabant was to expose your "good enough" philosophy. The Trabant was "good enough". Except that it wasn't, once it came in contention with technology that had been developed thanks to the incentives provided with patents and good old capitalistic greed.
Capitalistic greed, yes. Patents? Well, we don't know. Famously ford and other companies ripped off the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers. Ultimately, patents are anti-capitalist. They grant monopolies to people, irrespective of their ability to do things. But I'm not arguing against automotive patents at all, so it's totally irrelevant.

And look, I don't mean to be flippant but 99% of the stuff on your computer isn't written with patents in mind. Software developers hardly ever think about them. In particular, no one at Microsoft looks at them when they write software. So you have Windows, Firefox, Office, etc written without patent considerations in mind.

Also, it's more like comparing a Prius to an SUV. Sure, the SUV might be more fun to drive, but there are negative externalities.

Only a tiny, tiny slice of the software on your machine. just the video codecs are covered by patents, for the most part.

Look, You didn't understand the patent that you posted. I don't think you actually know much about how programming is done either. That's why you are arguing about unrelated things. You don't actually know anything about this topic.
also its inefficiences translate into wasted energy, which we're trying to conserve. I'd say enabling people and corporations to do their very best has a very real point.
Oh, come on. There are million things we can be making more efficient before we start worrying about less compressed video.
posted by delmoi at 4:58 PM on March 22, 2010


OK, I want to do a little thought experiment type thing. Imagine Mozilla does buy a license for MP4 and include it in Firefox, then at some point after that I decide to do a little project in my spare time:

Playing to my strengths, I decide I want to use the web technologies I'm most familiar with to develop a desktop application. I consider using Air but it doesn't really work well on my 64bit Linux box, Prism doesn't seem to have much uptake, so I build on top of XUL Runner.

I finish my little app and upload the compiled binaries to my website, should I now buy a license from MPEG-LA because I'm distributing their codecs?
posted by robertc at 5:06 PM on March 22, 2010


I finish my little app and upload the compiled binaries to my website, should I now buy a license from MPEG-LA because I'm distributing their codecs?

That would really depend on the details of Mozilla's license, particularly whether it gives Mozilla the right sublicense to people who do things like what you describe.
posted by jedicus at 5:14 PM on March 22, 2010


Only a tiny, tiny slice of the software on your machine. just the video codecs are covered by patents, for the most part.
It's just not right to post things like this and then mock other people for not knowing much about the topic. Things like this:
"So you have Windows, Firefox, Office, etc written without patent considerations in mind."
are simply and provably wrong. Windows is patented up the wazoo (MS has 14000 on file in the US alone). Firefox sprang from Netscape, whose parent company fought more than one patent battle and who themselves took out 70-odd patents. Office's new "open" XML format? Patented.

Tech companies are patenting furiously, all the time. Not so much to actually sue people, but as a kind of mutually-assured-destruction shield against one another.

That the programmers themselves don't necessarily think about patents has zip to do with their stimulus effect: the people who pay the programmers' salaries do think about patents and that's why, in the end, and as you already conceded, patents ultimately mean higher-quality software.

You can keep arguing that we should accept lesser quality software in the name of not having patents, and you might get followers, but then so did Stallman.
posted by bonaldi at 5:33 PM on March 22, 2010


delmoi : Oh, come on. There are million things we can be making more efficient before we start worrying about less compressed video.

Um, no. Really. Video takes #1, #2, and #'s 3 through 8 in the top ten bandwidth suckers. Music and still images share #9. Everything else gets to argue over #10.

Video drives the growth of the internet... Initially, in the form of porn, but as the bandwidth grew to handle it, we got YouTube. Google in no way exaggerates to say that, for them, +50% amounts to crippling the internet as we know it.
posted by pla at 6:58 PM on March 22, 2010


bonaldi: They file patents, but they rarely sue over them. The main issue is defensive patents, in case someone them because in most cases that person probably will be using their patented stuff. It's more a nuisance then anything. People don't take patents into consideration when they code
That the programmers themselves don't necessarily think about patents has zip to do with their stimulus effect: the people who pay the programmers' salaries do think about patents and that's why, in the end, and as you already conceded, patents ultimately mean higher-quality software.
How much money has Microsoft made because of patent licensing? That's just such a B.S. argument. Because someone files a patent does not mean they've made any money from it, or been motivated by it. Microsoft makes money by selling software. They use copyright law to protect their work. Patent law isn't part of it. If software patents were all invalidated tomorrow, it wouldn't affect Microsoft's bottom line one bit, and it wouldn't have made any difference for them in the past, except for their not being sued by patent trolls.

Look at the I.E. plug in patent suit. Microsoft nearly lost over a billion dollars. But then the patent was overturned on appeal! They recently lost a patent suit over some feature no one used in Microsoft word. And that's the thing: The patent trolls never produced anything useful, they just sat on their patents! The good software was created by people who didn't pay attention to patents, other then to file them defensively when things came up.

But look, the argument that because some company has filed patents, their software is better then it otherwise would be, is crazy.
Video drives the growth of the internet... Initially, in the form of porn, but as the bandwidth grew to handle it, we got YouTube. Google in no way exaggerates to say that, for them, +50% amounts to crippling the internet as we know it.
And those companies would have a ton of reasons to dump a ton of money into researching video codecs, even if they didn't get patent protection. The bandwidth cost savings would pay for the research.
posted by delmoi at 9:23 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure that if there was a thread on how paying for groceries allows shelves in stores to be restocked someone would chip in to let us know how volunteers could be stocking the shelves themselves with their own handmade free goods.
posted by Artw at 9:56 PM on March 22, 2010


Pretty sure that if there was a thread on how paying for groceries allows shelves in stores to be restocked someone would chip in to let us know how volunteers could be stocking the shelves themselves with their own handmade free goods.

Are these shelves that magically copy everything placed on them an infinite number of times at very low cost? What happens when someone updates a component of the shelf to an updated, but patented form? Does that mean all mom&pop stores now need to either buy a license or go out of business, because all their suppliers use shelves with the new components?
posted by delmoi at 11:35 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


How much money has Microsoft made because of patent licensing?

Just to answer your rhetorical question:

$0.25 per unit on every USB pen drive and SD card. The interesting thing about this one, of course, is that the main requirement here isn't for a technically superior solution, just a ubiquitous one.

Also several Linux 'patent license' deals, like Amazon and I-O Data, despite never telling us which of their patents Linux encroaches.
posted by robertc at 1:11 AM on March 23, 2010


$0.25 per unit on every USB pen drive and SD card

With a max of $250k per licensee. So far less then that in practice.

Even weirder, when you read the article it's clear that the patents in question are for dealing with "DOS Compatable" long file names, where names like "Helloworld.txt" get truncated to "Hello~1.txt", which are pretty pointless.

A perfect example of a B.S. software patent.
posted by delmoi at 1:41 AM on March 23, 2010


Your argument's coming apart at the seams, delmoi:

People don't take patents into consideration when they code
...
They use copyright law to protect their work.

So, wait, do the programmers take copyright into consideration when they code? No, they don't, which is why the programmers' considerations are still irrelevant. It's the company as a whole that matters here.

and it wouldn't have made any difference for them in the past, except for their not being sued by patent trolls.
Well, and all those times they've used their patent portfolio as a cudgel. Microsoft's actually been a good example of why software patents are a bad thing, in the past, but unfortunately as you keep insisting that patents are irrelevant to them you can't use those examples, because they won't exist in your non-fact-checking world.

You can still insist that the sky is green and that Microsoft only cares about copyright, but they're still taking out patents, and they're still suing people over them. Patents are different from copyrights in that they don't instantly enable a cash flow in this field, but they do offer protections, and those protections do provide a stimulus.

But look, the argument that because some company has filed patents, their software is better then it otherwise would be, is crazy.

What, you mean what you said:
So if people couldn't get patents on software, stuff would still exist it just wouldn't be as good.
you were just ... crazy? OK.
posted by bonaldi at 3:43 AM on March 23, 2010


So, wait, do the programmers take copyright into consideration when they code?
How does that even make sense? Writers don't take copyright into consideration when they write, because they are creating something new. It's only an issue if you plagiarize something. Unless you're copy and pasting someone Else's code, then copyright concerns are irrelevant. If you are copying and pasting code, which happens a lot in the Open Source world then of course people do care about the copyright on code they reuse. They're careful about not mixing incompatible licenses and soforth.
So if people couldn't get patents on software, stuff would still exist it just wouldn't be as good.
you were just ... crazy? OK.
Lets see if you can follow the logic here:
1) Software packages are created by people who have some motivation to write software

2) Those motivations may be different

3) Some people might write software in hope of licensing a patent, while others might write software in order to sell copies (protected by copyright). Others may have some other motivation

4) Once the work has been done, people may choose to acquire a patent, and there are many different reasons. They may want it for defensive purposes, or to license it, whatever.

5) Therefore the fact that someone acquired a patent related to software they wrote is not sufficient to show that they wrote the software because of the possibility of licensing the patent


In other words, there are several reasons why someone might want to write software, and several reasons why they might apply for a patent. Only in the cases where the two reasons are the same can you say the software was only written to acquire a patent.

Also, there are two different classes of software here 1) Small things that wouldn't take much effort to recreate, like a video codec and 2) large software projects that would take an equal effort to clone as to write initially. It's really only the first group that would need kind of patent protection.
It's the company as a whole that matters here. Well, and all those times they've used their patent portfolio as a cudgel ... unfortunately as you keep insisting that patents are irrelevant to them you can't use those examples, because they won't exist in your non-fact-checking world.
I didn't say that Microsoft never took any advantage of it's patent portfolio. What I said is that it's a side issue to their main business of writing and selling code. Again. If 99% of their revenue comes from software that they sell, and 1% comes from patents, then patents are largely irrelevant. These numbers matter. Microsoft doesn't seem to list any revenue as directly from patent licensing in. The fundamental question is: How much of Microsoft business would be different if there were no software patents? Would windows still exist and be about as good as it is? Internet Explorer? Office? SQL server and exchange? How would Microsoft's products be any worse without patent protection?

You seem to be arguing that they would be worse, but that's just not a very believable statement to me.

The whole argument of the patent pushers in this thread is basically "Look! There's a software patent! Therefore, software patents are good!" There's really no attempt whatsoever to prove in any real way that they've made anything better overall, or that anything in particular would be better.

(And, btw, I've changed my mind about codecs being better due to patent protection. That's probably not true. There are tons of companies with a financial interest in improving video compression rates, and I think that could easily pay for research, which would have to be shared to be used)
posted by delmoi at 4:43 AM on March 23, 2010


How does that even make sense? Writers don't take copyright into consideration when they write, because they are creating something new.

It doesn't! That's the point of the example. Which is why appealing to what's in a programmer's head as they're creating a program has fuck-all to do with whether or not patents/copyright/whatever act as incentives.

Therefore the fact that someone acquired a patent related to software they wrote is not sufficient to show that they wrote the software because of the possibility of licensing the patent

No, of course not, but few things are sufficient, aside from very specific statements. You equally can't claim that people wrote software because of the possibility of selling it just because they copyrighted it. But we can see a lot of correlation between the best software and patents and copyright. Arguing there's no connection is fruitless.

You seem to be arguing that they would be worse, but that's just not a very believable statement to me.
Well, except earlier, when you made exactly the same statement about video codecs. You might have changed your mind, but it doesn't make your earlier position "unbelievable" or implausible.

I'm all for changing your mind given new information, but changing your mind because you can't hold an argument together but are somehow compelled to keep posting anyway? I don't think so.

We need a Godwin-esque meme for that "the patent pushers in this thread" stunt, too. Creating factions and sides where there are none is sub-high school debating.
posted by bonaldi at 5:10 AM on March 23, 2010


It doesn't! That's the point of the example. Which is why appealing to what's in a programmer's head as they're creating a program has fuck-all to do with whether or not patents/copyright/whatever act as incentives.

Well, this is the kind of nonsense you get when you confuse patents and copyrights. People don't need to think about copyright as they write software because it's so straightforward. It would be very difficult to infringe copyright accidentally, but easy to infringe on a software patent. So the way people think about them is different.

And when I was talking about patents, I was talking about existing patents (that's why I said "patents" and not "the patentability of their ideas")

An equivalent comparison would be software developers who went around copying people's source code and including it in their projects. And actually, with open source that does happen and programmers are careful with copyright.

in other words, programmers, when there is a possibility of infringing copyright, are careful to avoid doing it, or get a license. But they do not do the same thing with patents. but, because the chances of infringing copyright unintentionally are low, it's a non issue unless you're re-using code.
But we can see a lot of correlation between the best software and patents and copyright. Arguing there's no connection is fruitless.
What a bizarre statement. We're talking about patents, and you bring up "patents and copyright". That's like arguing that rickshaws are a common mode of transportation in north America by saying "almost everyone gets around in a rickshaws or an automobile!". My entire point is that copyright alone is sufficient protection for software! All major open source projects are copyrighted and use copyright law to enforce their openness (albeit with the theory that if copyright law didn't exist, it wouldn't be necessary)


Now, lets take patents specifically. I went through your old comments to see if you'd given any specific examples of high-quality software that could only have come about through the use of patents. All your arguments come down to "Well, a patent exists, therefore the software would not have been written if patent protection didn't exist" and I found this:
Tech companies are patenting furiously, all the time. Not so much to actually sue people, but as a kind of mutually-assured-destruction shield against one another.

That the programmers themselves don't necessarily think about patents has zip to do with their stimulus effect: the people who pay the programmers' salaries do think about patents and that's why, in the end, and as you already conceded, patents ultimately mean higher-quality software.
So you're basically proving my point. People take out patents in order to defend against anyone who might sue them for patent infringement. You argue that the "stimulus is obvious" but in fact it's just a stimulus for patent lawyers. If no one else had patents, defensive patents would likewise be unneeded. People would still have written the software.

(An then there's the issue of all the patent trolls who never produce anything calling into question the very idea of a 'correlation' between an extant patent and quality software)

Now, that's the vast majority of cases. In some cases, going after a patent does make sense. With something like a video codec, or image compression you have to try a lot of different things before finding something that works. It's a lot more like science where you don't know what the end result is before you try. You have to do experiments. With most programming, you know that if you get the code written, and debugged, it will work.

But if you spend years researching something and coming up with the perfect tuning I can see how you would want to be paid for all the work you did, not just the final configuration that anyone could copy. So patents do make sense as a motivating factor here in these cases.

My argument was just that in those cases would end up with slightly worse video codecs or image compression libraries or whatever. And in a lot of cases, take for example the fractal image format, the patents caused people to avoid those technologies and so no one ended up using them anyway. so it's just as if they had never been written from the perspective of most users.

So that was my point. That in very specific instances, with very specific types of software patent seeking might improve it. But in those cases, an inferior version would be able to be swapped in without anyone really noticing.

(and btw, you seem to be very focused on UI, and user perspective when talking about software quality. In these cases, the user wouldn't notice anything, except longer download times. But the software would still work the same way)

But then, as I thought about it, I decided that probably people who serve video content would have a financial interest in improving video codec capabilities on their own. So video codecs would probably still exist. And I was also trying to illuminate the extreme worst case scenario envisioned by the patent pushers in the thread.

---

Now, just in case you're still confused:
1) There are different classes of software. For the vast majority, patents are just a nuisance that are, for the most part ignored. For a very small subset, patents are reasonable because the vast majority of the work that went into creating was just experimentation and testing. And now that that's done, it doesn't need to be done again.

2) The first class I mentioned would not be harmed by getting rid of software patents.

3) The second class I mentioned could in theory be harmed, but in practice I think it's possible that it wouldn't be.

4) In the worst case, if they were harmed, the inconvenience would be minor it's not a question of UIs or usability. You'd simply see lower video quality or higher bandwidth video.

5) On patents and copyrights: They are different. So people think about them differently.
posted by delmoi at 6:02 AM on March 23, 2010


And I was also trying to illuminate the extreme worst case scenario envisioned by the patent pushers in the thread.
Blazecock was wrong: you really are a troll; you're just a prolific one. There aren't "patent pushers" in this thread, there are a spectrum of posters, including some like me who think that US-style software patents are a terrible idea but nonetheless also think you're dead wrong about nearly everything to do with them.

The second class I mentioned could in theory be harmed, but in practice I think it's possible that it wouldn't be.
Fine.

Let us say then that there is a class of software -- a class that happens to be the subject of this thread and, you know, the whole point -- where you concede patents can in theory help protect and incentivise the creation of new and better work.

And you think that maybe in practice there could be other incentives, that the work would happen without patents. It hasn't happened yet, at all -- all the good work that has been done in the space has been patented, and those patents have been exploited and formed the primary economic foundation for more work in the area -- but you reckon it could happen, maybe, perhaps, in practice.

Your own argument is naught. You've got nothing to show when arguing against patents in this space, except by dragging in examples like Firefox which later turn out to be from your other class of software, so that you then have to rule them out again.

All you are left with now is "well, maybe without patents things would get worse, but I don't think doubling global bandwidth use, having crappier video or halving battery life is that bad, amirite?".
posted by bonaldi at 6:22 AM on March 23, 2010


The fundamental question is: How much of Microsoft business would be different if there were no software patents? Would windows still exist and be about as good as it is?

If software patents had existed in the eighties Windows might have been very different, because then the 'look and feel' court case would more likely have worked out against them.

Internet Explorer? Office? SQL server and exchange?

How different would things look if TBL had patented HTML? Or IBM had patented 'document preparation systems' or SEQUEL?

More significantly for this thread, what if someone had patented some of the components of SMTP in the early seventies? Would a global, standardised, essentially free email system ever have arisen? Or would we still be asking CompuServe to send messages to other CompuServe customers and no-one else?
posted by robertc at 7:21 AM on March 23, 2010


More significantly for this thread, what if someone had patented some of the components of SMTP in the early seventies? Would a global, standardised, essentially free email system ever have arisen?

Yes. SMTP isn't even very good, it was just free and open and played into the network effect very well. If it had been patented (and more importantly closed), we'd just be using something different (and not necessarily inferior at all). Doesn't mean we wouldn't have a "a global, standardised, essentially free email system".

And, of course, if someone really wants to make a kick-ass codec and give it away, they are most certainly welcome to. They've had lots of time.
posted by Bovine Love at 9:01 AM on March 23, 2010


If it had been patented (and more importantly closed), we'd just be using something different (and not necessarily inferior at all).

The point I'm making is: if it had been patented, whether closed or not, then anything 'different' yet still recognisable as an email system would probably be covered by the same patents. This is exactly why it's hard make a kick-ass codec and give it away.
posted by robertc at 9:42 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blazecock was wrong: you really are a troll; you're just a prolific one. There aren't "patent pushers" in this thread, there are a spectrum of posters

Oh please.
Let us say then that there is a class of software -- a class that happens to be the subject of this thread and, you know, the whole point -- where you concede patents can in theory help protect and incentivise the creation of new and better work.
Man, this is just ridiculous. People (including you) started talking about how Linux and Firefox weren't as good as other software products, and then the discussion moved to whether common applications and Operating systems were made better by patents. you argued that they were I argued that they weren't. Despite the fact that the thread was "about" this codec you argued that patents made Windows and most commercial software better! And I argued against it.

So now you're basically complaining about me participating in your derail? Seriously?

Here's what you said:
That claim [that software would have been written without patents] needs proof, and handwaving about Ogg, the Linux kernel and Firefox ain't it.
...
Linux has been trying to crack the desktop for a decade and still is while the commercial companies have moved on to mobile
...
Is good work done by people operating without making use of the financial incentives enabled by copyright and patents? Sure. Are their alternative incentives anything like as good at producing new and ground-breaking work? Nope, at least so far. It's all copy and clone.
...
Windows is patented up the wazoo (MS has 14000 on file in the US alone). Firefox sprang from Netscape, whose parent company fought more than one patent battle and who themselves took out 70-odd patents
Are you giving up on the argument that windows and other mainstream programs have been improved by patents? And if so, are you now trying to claim that you didn't even make them, and that my response to them was totally spurious and some kind of derail?

Now maybe you'll claim that you were only talking about copyright (since you said 'copyright and patents') but the entire time I've been saying copyright protection is "good enough" and that closed sourced companies base their business on copyright protection, not patent protection.

You guys are the ones who expanded the discussion and seemed to claim that all software that anyone had ever taken out a related patent on was only as good as it was because of those patents. And I was trying illustrate how that was wrong.
And you think that maybe in practice there could be other incentives, that the work would happen without patents. It hasn't happened yet, at all -- all the good work that has been done in the space has been patented, and those patents have been exploited and formed the primary economic foundation for more work in the area -- but you reckon it could happen, maybe, perhaps, in practice.
What? Are you seriously arguing that because something hasn't happened it couldn't happen? And more importantly the fact that some of the key technology got patented right away makes it more difficult for alternatives to get started. My argument was that in the absence of software patents, it would be easy to develop complex software like video codecs (and I gave an example, the Linux kernel as something that required a lot of work to create, but software patents were not required for it to be profitable -- which lead you to start talking about how crappy Linux was, etc).

So to make this simple: I think it's possible to do this either with or without the existence of software patents. Since software patents do exist, and a lot of the key ideas are locked up by patent, it becomes more difficult.
except by dragging in examples like Firefox which later turn out to be from your other class of software, so that you then have to rule them out again.
My god you're confused. An example of software "like this" that's not patent encumbered would be the PNG image format. Or Ogg Vorbis, which works as well as MP3. Or you could look at the 3d Engines from id software -- which is an example of closed-source software that's extremely complex and protected by copyright, from a company that's been ideologically opposed to software patents. A lot of their stuff could have been patented, I'm sure. But it wasn't and the company did fine and makes a lot of money. I think an OS kernel has a similar experimentation / final result ratio too.

That is to say, that software is in the first class where patent protection could (in theory) allow someone to work on the technology, do a lot of research into what works, and then license their patented idea. But. In a lot of cases, that's not what happens.

Just to clarify, since you seem to have trouble understanding:
1) Class 1 software involves things that take a lot of research and testing before the final results are chosen and implemented. That research is what gets protected by the patent, and patents can motivate people to do the research. But they could also be motivated by something else! Like saving money on bandwidth costs.

2) Class 2 is software is stuff that most of the effort is in writing the code, and copyright protects that effort just fine, because copying all the ideas would take as much effort as implementing them in the first place. This is the vast majority of the software industry, and would be entirely unaffected by the loss of software patents.
So there would be some changes with group one if software patents went away. I think the benefits would outweigh the costs. And if the software isn't as good, it's not going to be something like having an unpleasant or difficult to use user experience (which is what most people mean when they say 'bad software') rather it just means lower compression rates for video, basically.

Group two would actually see an immediate improvement, because they would no longer need to worry about patent trolls and other nuisances. And this actually would improve user experience, as everyone could use eachother's UI ideas (like multitouch)
posted by delmoi at 3:19 PM on March 23, 2010


You guys are the ones who expanded the discussion and seemed to claim that all software that anyone had ever taken out a related patent on was only as good as it was because of those patents.

You're extrapolating; no one ever even got close to "all software", and there was no claim whatsoever that the software was good because of the patents, only that the patents let the people with the money sleep at night while paying the people doing the work.
posted by Bovine Love at 3:31 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


1046 (including quotes) words of butthurt? You really can't bear it when people won't just let you steamroller your way through as usual, can you? Sorry, unpicking that morass of wrong just isn't worth it, not for me, not for anybody reading.
posted by bonaldi at 3:40 PM on March 23, 2010


1046 (including quotes) words of butthurt? You really can't bear it when people won't just let you steamroller your way through as usual, can you? Sorry, unpicking that morass of wrong just isn't worth it, not for me, not for anybody reading.

I'm not the one who took 46 words to say "tl;dr"

I would have liked to be a little more pithy, but frankly you've been spouting so much nonsense that it takes a while to explain why it's all wrong. And in general if you don't explain why it's all wrong and focus on one point people say "Well, what about all my other wrong points!"

But frankly at this point I have no idea what you're argument even is. I thought the argument was that the existence of patents makes all software better, and that the evidence for that was that a lot of good software has related patents.

The argument against that is that the software would have been written anyway, and that the patents are mostly just acquired for defensive reasons and hardly ever used in practice for real. That's obviously true for the vast majority of software.

Then you (I think) narrowed your argument down to just the video codec in question? Saying that because it was protected by patents, nothing like it would have been created without patents.

Now, anyone with any common sense can see the fact that h.264 was patented doesn't prove that it couldn't have been created without patents.

But frankly I think you've been pretty incoherent overall and I really don't know what point your trying to make. Maybe you could explain it, but if it's too much work to exclude quotes from a word count that seems unlikely.
posted by delmoi at 4:34 PM on March 23, 2010


I thought the argument was that the existence of patents makes all software better, and that the evidence for that was that a lot of good software has related patents.
No, I think that this is what you've been hoping the argument was, and behaving as if it was.

The argument is actually "we'd still end up with codecs like h.264 if we took away patents tomorrow, and the evidence for that is, well, uh, hey!, um, look over there at id software." When you first put a version of that claim forward I said it needed proof -- and that nothing you'd said amounted to anything like that proof.

You didn't back the claim up. Hell, you even undermined it for a while by saying that patents did in fact improve certain kinds of software, like video codecs. Then you were called on that and went on an extended grand tour of avoiding the point, scattering bold text in your wake.

A few thousand words later you'd managed to do out loud and in public the thinking that should have been done before your first comment, and decided that overall the work really would happen without patents, because in one fairly specific case at global scale -- Google, essentially -- the bandwidth savings could make it worth their while. And if that didn't apply, perhaps something else maybe would? Or the government could pay $50bn, maybe?

So, to recap: Patents are said to incentivise extra effort and investment in the creation of software (at least certain kinds of it, anyway). Some people make great software without patents. The overwhelming majority of great software, however, is made by people who make use of the protections provided by patents. That all these businesses are taking out these protections suggests that they have some real value to them, and thus can act as incentives. (That the patents are not used in anger nearly as much as the protections of copyrights are is really irrelevant: nuclear weapons are hardly ever used, but you can't say they're not a terrific incentive.)

Your claim that even if you took patents away companies would continue to invest in software R&D in exactly the same way as they do now still stands unproven.
posted by bonaldi at 5:09 PM on March 23, 2010


First of all let me clarify what I meant when I said "patent pushers" I just meant people arguing that software patents are a good idea. As in "patent promoters" or whatever. I thought it was pretty innocuous but now I see how it could be offensive, I guess.
A few thousand words later you'd managed to do out loud and in public the thinking that should have been done before your first comment, and decided that overall the work really would happen without patents, because in one fairly specific case at global scale -- Google, essentially -- the bandwidth savings could make it worth their while. And if that didn't apply, perhaps something else maybe would? Or the government could pay $50bn, maybe?
Yes, but I don't think that's any different then what I thought at the start of the thread, but my explanation probably got more clear.
So, to recap: Patents are said to incentivise extra effort and investment in the creation of software (at least certain kinds of it, anyway). Some people make great software without patents. The overwhelming majority of great software, however, is made by people who make use of the protections provided by patents.
Right and my argument is that the vast majority of the value is created by copyrights, not patents and that patent protection is just 'icing on the cake', so to speak. Once the work is done, there's no reason not to take out patents.

And on top of that, defensive patents wouldn't be a relevant consideration of what a world without software patents would look like.

In other words, I don't consider the existence of patents isn't evidence that the patents themselves motivated the original creation of the software
That all these businesses are taking out these protections suggests that they have some real value to them, and thus can act as incentives. (That the patents are not used in anger nearly as much as the protections of copyrights are is really irrelevant: nuclear weapons are hardly ever used, but you can't say they're not a terrific incentive.)
Right, but the question is "how much of an incentive are they?" and in my view they would only be a tiny part of the motivation for creating something like Windows, Office, etc. Now the problem here is that neither one of us actually has any evidence about how large that portion actually is. I say very small, you seem to be saying much more important.
The argument is actually "we'd still end up with codecs like h.264 if we took away patents tomorrow, and the evidence for that is, well, uh, hey!, um, look over there at id software." When you first put a version of that claim forward I said it needed proof -- and that nothing you'd said amounted to anything like that proof.
Well, and the thing is there is obviously no way to absolutely prove what would have happened if there were no software patents. I think it's clear that people do work on codecs and compression libraries without needing the possibility of a patent to motivate them. The specific examples I gave were PNG and Ogg Vorbis, which are closely analogous. Moving toward less analogous examples, you have the Linux Kernel and id software's engines.
Your claim that even if you took patents away companies would continue to invest in software R&D in exactly the same way as they do now still stands unproven.
As is the claim that they would not.
posted by delmoi at 6:06 PM on March 23, 2010


Oops, that should be "I don't consider the existence of patents isn't evidence that the patents themselves motivated the original creation of the software" I was editing the sentence and it got a little mangled.
posted by delmoi at 6:26 PM on March 23, 2010


Google boosts open video by funding ARM Theora codec
posted by Artw at 11:12 PM on April 11, 2010


Google to Open-source VP8 for HTML5 Video
posted by Artw at 5:04 PM on April 12, 2010


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