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Ogg Vorbis, the Xiph foundation, and a licensing change. Some readers have suggested that our coverage of Ogg Vorbis could be improved... given the announcements from the project this week, this seems like a good time to catch up. So here goes...
Those who are curious about the origin of the name can check out this page, which describes it in detail. "Ogg," as it turns out, comes from the classic Netrek multiplayer space war game (once the cause of much lost time on your editor's part); it signifies a suicide attack - though, in this context, it has been reinterpreted slightly. "Vorbis" comes from a science fiction novel. And the logo:
The 'Thor-and-the-Snake' logo is drawn somewhat from Norse mythology; the real symbolism is the sine-curve shape of the snake. Thor is hefting Mjollnir about to compress the periodic signal Jörmungandr... See, it all makes sense.
Ogg Vorbis has the potential to have an impact far beyond the free software community. The MP3 patent is a problem for just about anybody (or any company) working with audio. Solid-state audio players, game consoles, desktop software, and more are all affected. A clearly free alternative with better performance characteristics will be appealing in many applications.
To help Ogg Vorbis achieve world domination in its niche, its developers threw in a couple of important announcements along with the beta 4 library release. They are:
Ordinarily, if someone decides not to use a copylefted program because the license doesn't please him, that's his loss not ours. But if he rejects the Ogg/Vorbis code because of the license, and uses MP3 instead, then the problem rebounds on us--because his continued use of MP3 may help MP3 to become and stay entrenched.
In other words, Ogg Vorbis, despite its attractive features, has an uphill battle ahead of it. Some flexibility in licensing is, in this case, warranted; it may be the deciding factor which establishes a free audio (and, eventually, video) encoding standard. We wish them luck.
Copyright law and business models. The February 24 issue of The Economist has a leading editorial on the Napster case. Therein, it is written:
But the Napster case is not just, or even mainly, about piracy. It is about business models. The industry wants to stick to its old one - selling expensive compact discs - and to protect it. But Napster's success shows that there is a lot of appetite for a new model. The old model is legal, but the new one is not, since the industry refuses to endorse it.
Unfortunately, the Economist's business model states that this article is "premium content," available only to subscribers.
Very little coverage of the current intellectual property disputes have pointed out this basic fact - piracy is not the issue. It is, instead, a dishonest smokescreen put up by those who feel that a lucrative business is threatened by new technologies. This despite the fact that, usually, those businesses do better than ever after new technologies become established.
Thus, the music industry decides to shut down Napster, rather than work with it to create a new business that would clearly have willing customers. Similarly, the DVDCCA tries to employ the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to put the DeCSS genie back in the bottle. DeCSS has nothing to do with piracy of movies, but it is lethal to things like the "region coding" scheme that prevents people in the U.S. from watching European DVDs (and vice versa).
There is, of course, nothing new here. For some perspective, we recommend a perusal of Chapter 2 of Digital Copyright, a book by Jessica Litman. It discusses how copyright holders have worked for many years to have copyright law serve their interests, and how users of copyrighted material have not been represented in the process.
If Congress were in the habit of looking hard at copyright proposals to see whether their substantive provisions were good policy, or would interact in good ways with other policies, one might have expected this exercise to come to an early end. People who aren't copyright lawyers, after all, would look at the digital copyright agenda and say, "there's something wrong with this picture". But, because the tradition in copyright legislation involves getting a bunch of copyright lawyers to sit at a bargaining table and talk with one another, a lot of important questions were never asked.
Reading the entire chapter takes some time, but is worth the effort.
An obvious question comes to mind here: given this pattern of using copyright law (and other legal tools) to attempt to preserve lucrative business models, what kind of response will free software generate? Free software does indeed threaten business models based on intellectual property, and it is starting to make some companies nervous.
We have seen some responses already. The CueCat affair was an attempt by Digital Convergence to head off a free software threat to its business; in that case, the company eventually declared victory without actually changing anything. DeCSS threatens the film industry's control over how its customers can use films they have bought, and the industry has responded with a copyright-based challenge.
The battle against free software will be fought with proprietary formats, reverse engineering bans, software patents, and so on. Expect it to get ugly. But the free software community has a number of strong weapons that the copyright industry has not had to face before. It is a large, global, and vocal group, which is easily able to organize itself electronically. Free software increasingly has the backing of large businesses which see it as an important part of their future. And the nature of free software makes it hard to stop - it is an interesting exercise to see how long it takes to find a copy of DeCSS, despite over a year of constant, well-funded effort on the DVDCCA's part. And, of course, the free software community's ability to create great code is unparalleled. A fight is coming, but we should be able to win.
(And we'll have fun doing it. For those who haven't seen it, the haiku version of DeCSS is very much worth a look).
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March 1, 2001