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Eek! A Patent!

Mike Shaver’s blog about Mozilla forgoing H.264 support in the HTML <video> tag is getting a lot of play, predictably from the /. crowd.

It’s a shame, because it’s a childish and facile argument. Here’s the gist of it.

For Mozilla, H.264 is not currently a suitable technology choice. In many countries, it is a patented technology, meaning that it is illegal to use without paying license fees to the MPEG-LA. Without such a license, it is not legal to use or distribute software that produces or consumes H.264-encoded content.

In short, the very idea that something is patented and requires licensing is prima facie proof that it is intolerable. Going on:

These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content. And if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development.

Yeah, can you imagine if any other technology were encumbered by patents? They’d have to pass on the costs to customers too! Imagine if television were patented, or if automobiles involved 100,000 patents… surely those products could never exist and never be affordable.

There is a case to be made against patents and intellectual property as a whole, but this blog doesn’t make it. Instead, it blithely refuses to acknowledge that we do live in a world of IP, decrying its costs as if they are out of the ordinary or unjust. Ultimately, it flees back to the intellectual dead-end of “everything should be in Ogg”, a stance so untenable that even ESR conceded it was a non-starter, four years ago.

A final irony: by refusing to support H.264, Mozilla bolsters the primary alternative for video on the web: the Flash plug-in, which is not just patent-encumbered but proprietary, available only from Adobe and only in those environments where it serves the company’s strategic ends. Shaver, to be fair, admits that proprietary plug-ins are bad too, but declines to say they’re far more bad than patent-encumbered standards. Instead, he holds out for a pollyannaish vision of completely free web video technology, naming Ogg as his moral standard-bearer, without acknowledging Ogg’s lamentable but obvious feet of clay.

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