Saturday, May 1, 2010

Steve Jobs says patent pool is being assembled to go after open-source codecs

Hugo Roy, a Free Software Foundation Europe activist, recently wrote an open letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs about open standards in connection with video formats and streaming technologies.

He also sent the letter directly by email to Steve Jobs and received this answer:
All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other "open source" codecs now. Unfortunately, just because something is open source, it doesn't mean or guarantee that it doesn't infringe on others patents. An open standard is different from being royalty free or open source.
TheRegister has reported on Jobs' email and put the announcement into the context of an ongoing battle over multimedia formats and standards.

TechRights published the comments I sent to journalists, analysts and activists (including the part that TheRegister quoted).

There's also a discussion on Slashdot now.

A fairly thorough analysis was published by

Apple's role

While Steve Jobs doesn't say whether Apple is one of the right holders contributing to the patent pool in question, the fact that Apple knows about this already says something.

Apple is currently suing HTC, a maker of mobile phones, over infringement of various Apple patents related to the touchscreen user interface and other features of the Android open-source mobile phone operating software. While HTC has very recently obtained a license from Microsoft for any of their patents that may be relevant to Android, it seems that Apple's objective is not to collect royalties but to stifle innovation and reduce competition by keeping some functionality exclusively for itself (and maybe a few other large players in a position to cross-license with Apple).

Free and Open Source Software is under patent attack now. This blog will keep reporting and commenting on developments. IBM's use of patent warfare against the Hercules open-source emulator continues to be a major concern and nothing that IBM has since said suggests that there's an amicable solution in sight. Steve Jobs' remarks about Theora were far less specific than IBM's threat letter that listed 173 patents. Still we must watch how things evolve. The HTC case certainly shows that Apple can also be very serious about asserting patents against FOSS.

Apple and IBM

Whether Steve Jobs' email reply to the Free Software Foundation Europe was in any way encouraged by IBM's attitude towards the Hercules emulator is something we'll never know. Steve Jobs will certainly have heard of IBM's action. Apple, unlike IBM, never pretended to be a friend and protector of open souce (they use FOSS technologies but Apple is fundamentally the most closed-technology company one can imagine). Now they may feel that if even the self-proclaimed good citizens of the FOSS universe shamelessly use patent warfare, no one really needs to exercise restraint anymore.

Of the two companies, IBM is still the more dangerous one because it has the largest patent portfolio. Not only does IBM have more patents than Apple: IBM boastfully proclaimed last year that "its total number of patents was larger than those from Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Apple, EMC, Accenture, and Google combined."

I wouldn't even be surprised if IBM formed part of the patent pool Steve Jobs talked about. Since IBM takes out patents on anything digital, even the most basic ideas (some recent examples are listed in this post), they may also own some patents that read on Ogg Theora and other FOSS multimedia codecs.

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