[Foundation-l] Freedom, standards, and file formats

Michael Dale mdale at wikimedia.org
Wed Oct 8 01:32:30 UTC 2008

I will quickly weigh in on this thread: 

First context: (I developed metavid.org (a wiki congress video archive)  
and presently working with kaltura & wikimeida on the early stages of a 
ogg theora html5 collaborative video editing solution)

We at the (much much smaller) metavid project faced a similar issue of 
accessibility vs free/freedom a few months ago. As an explicitly free & 
patented unencumbered software project for the first 2 years we had 
exclusively used ogg Theora for our video archive.
There was subsequently a strong push to improve accessibility and 
support flash. The solution was to do a fall back distribution of the 
flash codec decoupled from the player.

Presently on the metavid site you can play back the flash video streams 
with either VLC or the flash plugin. If your client supports it you can 
play the ogg stream with vlc, native browser support, or cortado. Key to 
this fall back solution is the user interface is identical regardless of 
whatever method your playing back the content with.
All the play head controls, scripted interactions with transcript 
editing, remote embed scripts, transcript playback are abstracted away 
from the player. This is in some ways comparable to canvas emulation in 
flash that brion mentioned.

I think if the fullback approach is properly implemented it facilitates 
larger accessibility and hence entices much more wide scale usage of the 
video functionality. Ultimately allowing you to more actively promote 
free software solutions as an experience with identical or improved 
quality without the costs of proprietary codecs.

As Erik mentioned in this thread more data about playback would be 
helpfull and by request I have  hacked up a simple video player data 
collector and survey on the ogg / flash playback support situation.  
Should be ready to deploy shortly.

Michael Snow wrote:
> I mentioned earlier that I wanted to discuss open standards and file 
> formats in advance of the next board meeting. I'd especially like to 
> look at how these issues relate to our mission. There are a variety of 
> questions involved, which I'll summarize in terms of freedom - the 
> freedom that providing access to knowledge can give the recipient, and 
> the freedom that avoiding intellectual property restrictions can give 
> our culture generally. I trust we'd all agree both of these are positive 
> things in line with the Wikimedia Foundation's mission, which is what 
> makes it difficult if we have to choose between them.
> The more we move beyond simple text, the more intellectual property 
> restrictions expand beyond simple copyright to increasing complexity 
> (multiple rightsholders, patents, DRM, trademarks, database rights). 
> Sometimes these things can be fairly benign, to the extent of being at 
> least gratis-free, especially at the "consumer" level. Perhaps in terms 
> of our effort to provide access to knowledge, they might not impose any 
> real restrictions, except in extreme edge cases. But so far, we have a 
> pretty strong commitment to absolute freedom, even with respect to areas 
> that don't directly impact our work.
> To illustrate this with an example, maybe not the best but one that 
> comes up often enough, consider video file formats. (Some of this is 
> beyond my technical expertise, so please forgive any misstatements.) 
> Adobe Flash has widespread adoption to the point of being 
> near-universal. The company has also been moving to make it more open 
> for people watching, distributing, and working on content in this 
> environment. It's close to free, but I understand there are still some 
> issues like patent "encumbrances" around Flash. Meanwhile, there are 
> pure free software formats that do similar things but have pretty 
> limited adoption.
> This brings up a number of questions. First of all, how important is 
> multimedia content to us in general? Considering both the investment to 
> create it and the environment in which it's produced, historically it's 
> a lot less amenable to free licensing. It's still useful, no doubt, but 
> what measures should we take to promote it?
> Back to the two manifestations of freedom I mentioned, how should we 
> balance those? One possibility that's been raised is to allow Flash 
> content so long as we require that it be encoded and distributed in a 
> truly free format as well. Is that sort of approach an acceptable 
> compromise? It would make it much easier to achieve wide distribution of 
> free content, while still making sure that it's also available 
> completely without restrictions, for those who find that important. Are 
> there situations in which this compromise doesn't work out for some 
> reason? Why? (And none of this has to be limited to the Flash video 
> example, discussion of other formats and standards is welcome.)
> In dealing with the limited adoption of certain free formats, some 
> people have advocated a more evangelistic approach, if you will. Given 
> the reach of Wikipedia in particular, it's suggested that our policy 
> could push wider adoption of these formats. That may be, but the 
> question is, how much is that push worth? What are the prospects for 
> making those formats readable in the average reader's environment, and 
> encouraging wider use as a standard? Does an uncompromising approach 
> result in significant progress, or would we simply be marginalizing the 
> impact of our work? And is it worth the "sacrifice" of the many people 
> who would miss out on some of the knowledge we're sharing, because the 
> free format isn't accessible to them? (That's also partly a problem of 
> disseminating knowledge, of course.) If we adopt a compromise position 
> as described earlier, how much do we lose in terms of promoting the 
> freer formats?
> Before I joined the board, I understand the board considered a 
> resolution to create a file format policy. These are the kinds of 
> questions we need to consider before we can set such a policy. We're not 
> going to be passing anything at next week's meeting, though, the 
> discussion isn't far enough along and it wouldn't be right to push it 
> through with so little consultation. But we need to have the 
> conversation, so I would like the community's feedback on this list, 
> both now and feel free to continue during and after our meeting.
> --Michael Snow
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