Open Source in MPEG

Covenor of MPEG, Dr. Chiariglione gives the history of the Moving Picture Experts Group and explains the characteristics of the MPEG open-source software process.
Today and Tomorrow

Currently, MPEG is engaged in the final stages of development of MPEG-7, “Multimedia Content Description Interface”, a standard to describe audio and video information, be it at the level of a complete movie or as a single object in a picture. The standard will be approved in July 2001. Also, for this standard there is a huge body of reference code that has been developed according to rules similar to those of MPEG-4.

In June 2000, MPEG started a new project called MPEG-21, “Multimedia Framework”. In this context, MPEG will develop and integrate, in collaboration with other bodies, all the technologies that are needed for electronic commerce of digital content on the network.

The key technologies that are needed by this project are:

  1. Digital Item Declaration: a uniform and flexible abstraction and interoperable schema for declaring Digital Items.

  2. Content Representation: how the data is represented as different media.

  3. Digital Item Identification and Description: a framework for identification and description of any entity regardless of its nature, type or granularity.

  4. Content Management and Usage: the provision of interfaces and protocols that enable creation, manipulation, search, access, storage, delivery and (re)use of content across the content distribution and consumption value chain.

  5. Intellectual Property Management and Protection: the means to enable content to be persistently and reliably managed and protected across a wide range of networks and devices.

  6. Terminals and Networks: the ability to provide interoperable and transparent access to content across networks and terminal installations.

  7. Event Reporting: the metrics and interfaces that enable users to understand precisely the performance of all reportable events within the framework.

Of particular interest for this article is item five, Intellectual Property Management and Protection. Since MPEG-2 times, MPEG has been mindful of the need to provide solutions for those content and service providers who attach monetary value to content. So far, the solutions provided by MPEG have been at the level of enabling the use of proprietary protection technologies. However, these have the disadvantage that consumption of protected content is no longer transparent to the user, even in the case where users are willing to adhere to the conditions set by the rights holder. This is the reason MPEG is now developing a solution to provide “interoperability at the level of protected content”.

Patents in MPEG Standards

In the 15th century, “Letter patents” were already in use in Venice and Florence but unknown in Mainz. Therefore, the only way for Johannes Gutenberg to protect his invention was by hiding the secrets from everybody, including his financial backers, and this eventually led him to ruin. In the 19th century, all audio-and video-related inventions were protected by patents. This continued in the 20th century although the centre of gravity progressively shifted from individuals to the companies hiring them. When the prospects of using digital technologies became clear, all companies and organizations started making or funding research in audio and video coding. Today, the number of patents is counted by the thousands.

When MPEG started its work in audio-visual coding, it was immediately evident that either MPEG play by the existing rules in the audio-visual world—that standards usually require patents for their implementations—or it would have been impossible to produce any standard of practical value. This is in addition to the difficulty MPEG, with no funds of its own, faced becoming aware of patents required to implement its standards.

The problem of patents in standards is, of course, well known to the three main international standards organizations: IEC, ISO and ITU. They have developed the following general policy:

  1. No patent should be required to implement a standard or;

  2. The rights holder should release the rights or; and

  3. The rights holder should make a statement where he or she engages to give license to his patent “on fair and reasonable terms and nondiscriminatory conditions”.

MPEG has, therefore, developed a policy for the development of its standards that deliberately neglects consideration of patents and seeks only to achieve the optimum performance. The result has been that MPEG standards usually require a large number of patents.

As many as 100 different standards are reportedly needed to implement an MPEG-2 decoder. Because of the high interest in a “one-stop shop” for MPEG-2 patents, a private organization giving license to most MPEG-2 patents has been set up. Interestingly, the amount to be paid for the patents in an MPEG-2 decoder has remained constant, while the number of relevant patents has increased.

The same is happening with MPEG-4. The MPEG-4 Industry Forum ( has been established with the goal of kicking off patents pools for MPEG-4 profiles. Of course, the MPEG-4 case is much more complex since many business models require decoder download. A similar organization for MPEG-7 is likely to be set up soon.