Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Controversy Feeding Frenzy

I'd like to start off with a bit of personal good news: I received a call from my lawyer earlier informing me that my official first name change to Maya has been approved and that after a 3 month complaint period I can begin changing all official documents to my new official name.

Now, on to the big, global news: a few days ago I launched a new Open Source project called 'Wild Fox', which aims to release builds of Firefox with features such as HTML 5 H.264 (AVC) video support added, as well as other features which the Mozilla project does not wish to add due to software patents. As the Wild Fox project is based in Europe where (pure) software patents do not apply, we can safely add such features without having to risk a patent infringement lawsuit. You can find more information on the project site at http://wildfox.sourceforge.net which will soon redirect to the permanent site at BerliOS.de, a German government-funded forge for open source software.

Naturally, no one in a software patent-encumbered country can use Wild Fox unless he or she pays the license costs associated with it. So far this affects everyone from the United States of America and South-Korea. As far as I can determine Japan doesn't seem encumbered, though I don't speak legalese well enough to call that one. It will have to come down to each individual to research the patent law in his or her country before downloading a copy of Wild Fox as I or my fellow developers can impossibly determine this for each single country in the world.

Since Slashdot first published a story about the Wild Fox project I have received a barrage of emails from people wanting to help, criticizing, asking for interviews and to tell me how much they admire me for having a medical issue like mine and not giving up. Two developers seem to have stuck for now, I'll see what they can do the coming days. A Mozilla developer has also pledged his assistance, specifically with the GStreamer framework which Wild Fox will be using to replace the existing rendering backend with. I got a few dozen more potential developers to pick from.

After Slashdot broke the story, it got picked up by Reddit.com, OSNews.com, WebWereld.nl and a few others. I just did an interview for The Register and another site wants to interview me as well. The comments on these stories seem to be split along the same lines as in the whole HTML 5 video debate, with one side complaining that I'm giving in to the evil conglomerates by adding a software-patent burdened codec to Firefox and should stick to 'open' codecs like Theora instead. The other side applauds the project and thinks it's a great move which could save Firefox.

As Pieter puts it, it's not the browsers which determine which codec will be used, but the sites people visit. If sites like YouTube only offer HTML 5 video in H.264 format, people will use a browser like Chrome, Opera or even Internet Explorer 9 once it comes out. The browser is just the tool one uses to visit a site with, after all, and if Firefox doesn't allow one to view video on a site due to some idealistic point of view, they will drop it for another browser. Maybe if they had 90+% marketshare like IE once did they could have pulled it off, but not now, not like this.

So it's about letting people decide which codec will be used the most, without trying to force anyone's hand. What it is also about is fighting the at least in my eyes ridiculous notion of having to pay license fees for the use of particular pieces of software. When people claim that I'm selling out to the MPEG-LA, the organization collecting the license feeds for H.264, they seem to miss this point completely. I do not intend to ever pay the MPEG-LA even one cent, nor to have them collect it from anyone else. As long as only people outside software patent-encumbered countries use H.264, MPEG-LA will never see a dime from their patent pool investment. Ergo the companies which form MPEG-LA will have wasted their investment in software patents.

How things will really work out I'm not sure, but I do believe that this is the right approach. Software patents are an evil which can only destroy innovation and progress in more than just the software industries. My own company, Nyanko, would be wiped away due to software patent lawsuits if they were valid here in the EU. I'm grateful to the European Parliament for taking a stand against software patents, despite juggernauts like Microsoft lobbying for allowing them.

The article at The Register just went online: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/18/wild_fox_adds_h_dot_264_to_firefox/

The coming weeks will be interesting indeed.