[Foundation-l] File format policy

Gregory Maxwell gmaxwell at gmail.com
Sun Feb 12 13:22:12 UTC 2006

On 2/12/06, Delirium <delirium at hackish.org> wrote:
> I don't see any reason not to allow that.  The point of the "no
> patent-encumbered formats" restriction, as far as I understand it, is to
> keep all our content available in fully free formats for both viewing
> and editing.  *Also* providing a video in MPEG-4 doesn't make the Theora
> version any less free or available.

But unless we were to generate the proprietary formats with server
side transcoding there would be no way to ensure that the open codec
formats were always available and the preferred form for editing...
and I'm pretty confident that the use of non-free software for the
Wikipedia backend is still out of the question.

That said, I don't know that I agree with your argument that providing
an mpeg-4 version doesn't make the the free version less available: So
long as the mpeg-4 format is more widely supported (and I don't know
that it really is by that wide a margin, one thing I've learned is
that peoples guesses are often wrong... but if it's not the discussion
is moot) then people will preferentially transfer and share in that
format.  Just because Wikipedia is carrying both formats doesn't mean
the downstream will do so...  Sure, downstream can always transcode
themselves, but that still leaves us in a position to decide
downstream must do less work to distribute in the freedom deprived
formats, or more work if they wish to offer those formats.

I don't feel confident that it would be legal to distribute typical
copyleft licensed content in an unfree format... As I expressed
previously, I'm pretty unhappy about the idea the content I created
being distributed in these formats.

Even if we ignore all the other issues, we're still left with the fact
that the Wikimedia foundation's intended uses almost certainly fall
under the criteria that the the patent holders of these formats
believe they are entitled to extract per-download fees on (especially
in the case of mpeg4).  Now, the question of do they really have a leg
to stand on is a separate matter, but can count on a dispute being
costly either way... We can already see how this is panning out in the
industry: Everyone of substantial size pays the protection fee.

Generally the enforcement (and licensing costs) of this stuff is tuned
to keep the economics in favor of supporting the proprietary formats
and avoiding the push to free formats. If the licensors were to make
too much of a nuisance of themselves, the public would take the one
time change out cost to switch entirely to free formats and the
licensors would lose out massively while the public would benefit
greatly so the situation remains carefully controlled.

The existence of Vorbis itself demonstrates this dynamic: the not
insubstantial cost to create Vorbis was primarily covered by an
internet content distribution house who never actually switched to it.
The mere existence of a viable free alternative changed the balance
away from Thompson enough to easily justify the cost.

The preservation of these costly (to society) proprietary formats is
possible because the primary decision makers in this grand game are
obligated to maximize profits above all other motives, this provides a
knob hook for the patent holders to tweak to keep the situation under
their control.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, is chartered to provide Free content.
Our duty, ultimately, it to maximize long term public good even at the
expense of short term popularity or convenience (and it isn't at all
clear that we are even giving up anything there with the decision to
only use free formats). There is, quite frankly, no good reason for us
to feel compelled by the limited advantages of the proprietary
formats... but the existence or lack of advantages shouldn't be our
motivator in this decision, the utter incompatibility of proprietary
and encumbered  with our fundamental goals should.

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