Most audio and video content on the web is encoded by proprietary codec’s.
This means that almost all content encoded for artistic, cultural or independent media purposes is encrypted. Encrypted in the sense that the content has been converted to a closed file format which can only be 'decrypted' by media players that have the requisite licensed algorithms (codecs). Hence the owners of these algorithms (Thompson and Fraunhofer, Microsoft, Real Networks etc) own the key to the content. It is not a public key, its a closed proprietary key. You, the content producer, cannot unlock your encrypted file (content) unless you do so with the appropriate media player software. These player softwares are usually created by the software house that owns the codec or they are created by a third party who licence the key (codec) to unlock (decode) and play your file.
This may seem ok now, you probably haven’t had any problems from this apart from the fact people may need to download a new player to experience your online streaming file. However is it enough to trust that all will always be ok. Consider, for example, if you have encoded (encrypted) some video content with a closed codec (lets take RealNetworks audio and video codec’s for this example). For now you might have the key (algorithm) to 'unlock' the content and replay it in a player software (in this case the RealPlayer). However we can easily imagine a situation in 'X' years time where Real has crashed and burned and are no longer a technology provider. Where is your content now? Your content could well be in a encrypted file format with no licensed keys to open it. The codec may have gone down with the company and you may be left begging users to download the older players that you have found in some arcane archive somewhere on the net (ever tried looking for an old RealPlayer?), and who is to say the legal remains of (in this case) RealNetworks won't stop you from doing even that?. Distributing the software or its components (dlls / plugins etc) is illegal unless you have express permission from RealNetworks in this example and the right to stop you doing this my persist long after the companies death.
There is an interesting parallel to this with MAMEs (Multi-Arcade Machine Emulators). Arcade games from of all sorts, going right back to PONG, are available on the internet for download. However you require a software known as a MAME to interpret the file formats of these games, there are many of these emulators available but almost no more games (known as ROMS) can be retrieved easily from the net unless you know exactly where to go. This is different from a few years ago when you could easily get almost any ROM you wanted. However these sites have been systematically closed down by games companies protecting their interests. Many of the games companies that created the original ROMS have ceased to exist but the ROMS are now owned by other companies, and these new owners protect their interests by closing MAME ROM sites.
Could this happen with codec’s?
It has already. Progressive Networks (formerly Real Networks) released an early video codec which they termed ‘fractal video compression’. Many people used this codec as there were few choices available at the time for encoding video for streaming. However the codec is no longer supplied with the RealPlayer.
Half the battle for free media on the internet is for the codec’s, the other half is for the players. The most commonly distributed players – RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and the QuickTime player support their own suite of codec’s.
That means we have almost as many players as we have codec suites. How many people have RealPlayer, QuickTime Player, and WindowsMedia? Player installed as well as perhaps XMMS and Winamp? Why can’t you choose the player to play the content without the codec choosing it for you?
Unifying the codecs within a single interface wont happen because the marketing strategy of these companies relies on capturing an audience through their player interfaces. RealOne? player, for example, tries to massage you into subscribing to their content channels - making you part of their ‘revenue stream’.
Allowing new free software interfaces, with new interface and navigational paradigms, also won’t happen (or is at least very difficult) because these companies control the licensing of the codecs to developers.
Additionally, until the open codec’s are well supported in media players (download yours today!) then ironically media encoded in free codec’s has a very limited audience.
Proprietary codec’s make companies money. Hence they do not support open codec’s because free codecs are competition.– the more open codec content there is, the less need you have for their players, the less money they make.
WindowsMedia Player, QuickTime player, and the RealPlayer have advertising embedded in their interfaces. This advertising generates revenue for Microsoft et al. Because your content opens one of these players, more eyes get to see the embedded advertising which translates to $$$ for these companies.
The question arises as to what control you have over the software you are using to stream. For example, the codecs determine the player, and the player is licensed to the end user. Do you know what the player licences permit and restrict? No?
Well here’s an example from the Licence of the RealPlayer:
Paragraph 2© says : “You may only use the Software for your private, non-commercial use. You may not use the Software in any way to provide, or as part of, any commercial service or application. Copies of content files, including, but not limited to songs and other audio recordings, which are downloaded or copied using the Software, and which are protected by the copyright laws or related laws of any jurisdiction, are for your own personal use only and may not be distributed to third parties or performed outside your normal circle of family and social acquaintances.”
Any content displayed through the player is for “your own personal use only and may not be distributed to third parties or performed outside your normal circle of family and social acquaintances”. So, for example, if you work at a Public Library and you want to make some public archives available for free then this is not permitted under the general licence of the RealPlayer.
Open Source and Streaming
Its strange that this debate does not often enter the rosy world of the 'Open Source' idealists. Strangely Eric Raymond, president and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, has a speech about The Cathedral and the Bazaar linked from his site in RealAudio? format (#). This on the same site that he points out that “Unisys is shaking down websites that use GIFs for a $5000 license fee” and links to the well known #
Why is this medium (online audio / video) not debated more often in the area of 'Open Source'?
It seems the potential consequences of closed and /or proprietary codec’s have only dawned on a few, most importantly those at # where the development of the royalty free Ogg Vorbis audio codec takes place and # where the same people are trying to develop the VP3 open video codec.
Well, if you are a programmer and have some time on your hands then you can contribute to the many projects aimed at countering the major technology providers in this field. One action could be to contribute to the sophisticated Icecast open streaming server project, or the various Xiph.org projects.
If you are a content producer you can take control of the interface making sure revenue streams are not built on the back of your content. If you stream content then consider linking to a player without embedded advertising or embed your stream in a webpage. This has the obvious secondary advantage of ensuring you control the aesthetic context that your work is displayed in, making sure your content is not surrounded and associated with ugly advertising.
However for most of us the biggest thing we can do is understand the issues, support those 'fighting the good fight' and prepare to convert our archives from proprietary codec’s to 'fully open' (from the description of Ogg Vorbis (#) codec’s. Its getting easier to do this, many players (not just those on Linux platforms but also popular players like Winamp) support Ogg Vorbis already and the list of supporting softwares for these free codec’s is growing. And lastly, Get your free codec’s now.