Should We Fight for Ogg Vorbis?
I'm a big fan of Richard Stallman and his work – even though, the first time I interviewed him, he proceeded to criticise my questions before answering them, not a journalistic experience I'd had before. Without his vision and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of indifference and outright hostility, we would not have the vast array of free software we enjoy today.
More recently, he has built on his growing success in creating a flourishing free software ecosystem by moving on to address important related issues. These include fighting DRM (“Digital Restrictions Management” as Stallman likes to call it) through the DefectiveByDesign campaign, and battling against Microsoft Vista with the BadVista initiative.
I think that's good news: DRM is emerging as one of the last major obstacles to the wider use of free software, and Microsoft's Vista represents a significant bolstering of the DRM approach – to the point that Vista has been memorably described as a “DRM infection masquerading as an OS”. But there is another campaign that the Free Software Foundation has recently launched that I am less sure about. It's called PlayOgg:
Though the MP3 format has become very common, any time a distributor sells or gives away music encoded as an MP3, they are responsible for paying a fee to the owners of the MP3 patents. These patents are also an issue for developers writing software to work with MP3s. In contrast, the specification for Ogg Vorbis is in the public domain, so anyone can use the format or write software to use it without being dependent on a patent holder for permission.
One thing I should state immediately is that I think that Ogg Vorbis is great: it's cool technology doing all the right things in the right way. So my doubts about this campaign have nothing to do with any weaknesses in Ogg. It's just that I wonder whether this is really something the free software world should be expending much energy on when there are other more pressing problems. Whereas DRM and software patents, for example, are manifestly and unequivocally bad for free software (and indeed for everyone), that doesn't seem to be true for the MP3 format.
Some might argue that the MP3 technology is inferior to Ogg Vorbis; perhaps, but it's clearly good enough for the vast majority of users. The difference in sound quality, such as it is, seems unlikely to be sufficient to encourage many people to switch to Ogg.
More serious is the issue of patents. This whole area is certainly a mess, but the good news is that the MP3 patents run out pretty soon – maybe even in 2011. If the PlayOgg campaign had started several years ago, I would be more sympathetic: given that the problem will go away in the near future anyway, it seems rather late in the day to start worrying about it, not least because it will take some time for the campaign to gain any momentum.
The final reason why the PlayOgg effort is not really necessary is that in the LGPL'd LAME code we have what many regard as the best MP3 encoder in the business, and one that seems to be tolerated by the patent holders. So provided the latter don't go bonkers and sue everything in sight during the last years of their patents (admittedly, always a possibility), it's not even the case that the use of patented technology is locking out users of free software.
By all means use and improve Ogg; by all means seek better support for it from the manufacturers of music players and from digital music retailers. But let's not lose sight of the real threats facing free software - software patents and DRM – or get too distracted from the long and hard struggle that will be needed to defeat them.
Glyn Moody writes about openness at opendotdotdot.