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Google open codec wins OSI love after patent shield rethink

Open is as open does

Google has rejiggered the license on its open-source VP8 video codec after complaints that it wasn't really open source.

Today, with a blog post, Google's Chris DiBona announced that the company had switched to a pure BSD license, ending a bit of a feud with various open source stalwarts over the codec.

On May 19, after acquiring VP8 as part of its $124.6m purchase of video compression outfit On2 Technologies, Google told the world it had opened sourced the codec under a new royalty-free license. But just days later, Simon Phipps — the former head of open source at Sun and a board member with the Open Source Initiative — told the world that the codec could not be considered open source because its license hadn't been approved by the OSI.

Phipps also chided DiBona and Google for introducing a new license after years spent complaining of "license proliferation." But Mountain View has solved both issues by switching to unadulterated BSD. "I am pleased to say that the project is now fully open source, with the copyright licensed under the BSD licence," Phipps said in a post of his own.

"Many thanks to Google for addressing the concerns that I and many other members of the community expressed over the licence under which the project was initially announced. We are spared yet another open source licence, something I welcome as an OSI director."

Google purchased and open sourced VP8 in an effort to provide a royalty-free codec for HTML5 web video, an alternative to the patent-backed H.264 codec favored by Apple and Microsoft. The codec has been rolled into a larger media format known as WebM, and it has already been included in developer-build browsers from Mozilla and Opera as well as Google.

Hoping to defend the VP8 codec against patent attack, Google open sourced the technology under a new license that included some patent-centric language. Google's license was essentially a BSD modified with language that provided the licensee with patent rights to the technology while preventing them from using other patents in an infringement suit against the codec. The license granted patent rights, and it terminated if you filed patent litigation against the code. In other words, if you filed a suit, you lost the patent rights provided by the license and you lost the right to even use the code.

This not only meant Google had created a new license. It meant that it wasn't compatible with existing popular licenses like GPLv3 and GPLv2.

At the time, Simon Phipps complained that Google had created a new license and released code under the license without the approval of the OSI, and he questioned whether the license could gain approval. "WebM is not currently open source, despite using a license based on the BSD and Apache licenses. This problem can be readily fixed by Google, and speaking as a member of the OSI Board I'd love to see them submit a templatised version of this license for approval," he said.

"They've indicated they intend to 'follow best practices,' so I'm hopeful, even if it means slight embarrassment over license proliferation."

Rather than submit the new license for approval, Google has simply separated the patent grant from the copyright license. The end result is that VP8 is now licensed under pure BSD. The patent grant is a separate document. "Using patent language borrowed from both the Apache and GPLv3 patent clauses, in this new iteration of the patent clause we've decoupled patents from copyright, thus preserving the pure BSD nature of the copyright license. This means we are no longer creating a new open source copyright license, and the patent grant can exist on its own," DiBona wrote today.

"Additionally, we have updated the patent grant language to make it clearer that the grant includes the right to modify the code and give it to others."

Phipps is nothing but pleased. "This is a particularly good resolution as it offers the WebM source under the most liberal possible open source licence, allowing re-use in almost any context, while solving the one down-side of the BSD licence — the lack of a patent grant. Google has also eliminated the incompatibility with the GPLv2 and GPLv3 licences that existed in the original language, which means that it will be possible for WebM to be readily incorporated in the GNU environment and in GNU/Linux," he said.

Of course, as Phipps points out, the MPEG-LA — the organization that licenses H.264 — is threatening to undermine Google efforts by pulling together a patent pool aimed a removing VP8's royalty-freeness. And we can't help but wonder why Google didn't work out the license issues before releasing the codec. It so often seems that despite the general perception that the company has everything planned, Google is flying by the seat of its pants. But at least we can all now agree that VP8 is the way forward — with the exception of Apple, Microsoft, and the MPEG-LA. ®

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