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Open letter to Google: free VP8, and use it on YouTube

Free Software FoundationWith its purchase of the On2 video compression technology company having been completed on Wednesday February 16, 2010, Google now has the opportunity to make free video formats the standard, freeing the web from both Flash and the proprietary H.264 codec.

Dear Google,

With your purchase of On2, you now own both the world’s largest video site (YouTube) and all the patents behind a new high performance video codec — VP8. Just think what you can achieve by releasing the VP8 codec under an irrevocable royalty-free license and pushing it out to users on YouTube? You can end the web’s dependence on patent-encumbered video formats and proprietary software (Flash).

To sit on this technology or merely use it as a bargaining chip would be a disservice to the free world, while bringing at best limited short-term benefits to your company. To free VP8 without recommending it to YouTube users would be a wasted opportunity and damaging to free software browsers like Firefox. We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!

Why this would be amazing

The world would have a new free format unencumbered by software patents. Viewers, video creators, free software developers, hardware makers — everyone — would have another way to distribute video without patents, fees, and restrictions. The free video format Ogg Theora was already at least as good for web video (see a comparison) as its nonfree competitor H.264, and we never did agree with your objections to using it. But since you made the decision to purchase VP8, presumably you’re confident it can meet even those objections, and using it on YouTube is a no-brainer.

You have the leverage to make such free formats a global standard. YouTube is the world’s largest video site, home to nearly every digital video ever made. If YouTube merely offered a free format as an option, that alone would bring support from a slew of device makers and applications.

This ability to offer a free format on YouTube, however, is only a tiny fraction of your real leverage. The real party starts when you begin to encourage users’ browsers to support free formats. There are lots of ways to do this. Our favorite would be for YouTube to switch from Flash to free formats and HTML, offering users with obsolete browsers a plugin or a new browser (free software, of course). Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad — albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) — and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash’s dominance in web video.

But even some smaller actions would also have an impact. You could interest users with HD videos in free formats, for example, or aggressively invite users to upgrade their browsers (instead of upgrading Flash). Steps like these on YouTube would quickly push browser support for free formats to 50% and beyond, and they would slowly increase the number of people who never bother installing Flash.

If you care about free software and the free web (a movement and medium to which you owe your success) you must take bold action to replace Flash with free standards and free formats. Patented video codecs have already done untold harm to the web and its users, and this will continue until we stop it. Because patent-encumbered formats were costly to incorporate into browsers, a bloated, ill-suited piece of proprietary software (Flash) became the de facto standard for online video. Until we move to free formats, the threat of patent lawsuits and licensing fees hangs over every software developer, video creator, hardware maker, web site and corporation — including you.

You can use your purchase of On2 merely as a bargaining chip to achieve your own private solution to the problem, but that’s both a cop-out and a strategic mistake. Without making VP8 a free format, it’s just another video codec. And what use is another video format with patent-limited browser support? You owe it to the public and to the medium that made you successful to solve this problem, for all of us, forever. Organizations like Xiph, Mozilla, Wikimedia, the FSF, and even On2 itself have recognized the need for free formats and fought hard to make it happen. Now it’s your turn. We’ll know if you do otherwise that your interest is not user freedom on the web, but Google’s dominance.

We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 license (or later version).

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