Do Your Homework

by Emmett Plant

What about people that don't do their homework? Life has taught me that they'll fail. Sure, some people get lucky, but it's very difficult if you can't show your work. Now, what if a representative from a large research foundation decides to make generalized claims against an open-source project without doing his homework? Who loses?

John Borland wrote a great article for c|net last week about the Ogg Vorbis project's decision to continue even though the company that was sponsoring them, iCast, collapsed in the dot-com drop. The Ogg Vorbis format is an extremely interesting alternative to the Fraunhofer Institute's MP3 format. I've written about Ogg Vorbis before; John Borland did his homework. Ogg Vorbis isn't just about better sound, it's about having a free and open standard, something that Linux users thrive on every day. The Fraunhofer/Thomson MP3 format is not a free and open standard, something that gives open-source and Free Software enthusiasts a major wedgie.

One quote from the article drove me up a wall. Thomson Multimedia, the company that controls the MP3 format's licensing and royalties, has some guy named Henri Linde, with the massively impressive title of Vice President of New Business, who uttered the following:

"We doubt very much that they are not using Fraunhofer and Thomson intellectual property," Linde said. "We think it is likely they are infringing."

Well, of course they're infringing. Or maybe not. The patent system allows for infringement claims, regardless if the code was developed independently, and even if the code itself is entirely different. What we're talking about is the difference between infringement and an infringement claim. Unfortunately for us, this is for the courts to decide. Of course, the eminent scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute could look at the Ogg Vorbis code anytime they want; it's open.

You see the problem, right? Maybe you don't. Ogg Vorbis has a kicking free alternative to MP3 that sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, the company that was paying their bills went under, but Ogg is moving forward as normal. While they try to get back on its feet, this monkey from Thomson Multimedia tries to sow doubt and cast blame on a group he probably knows very little about.

Clever marketing ploy? Maybe. Bad for Thomson Multimedia? Probably, in the end, if the Ogg format succeeds. Definite damage to an open-source project by way of unfair and unjust accusations with a healthy dollop of misinformed horse manure? Undoubtedly. The Fraunhofer guys will sow the seeds of Bad Mojo at the House of Vorbis, and it might make early adopters of the Vorbis technology scared enough not to invest in this open and free solution. That means Yet More Marketshare for the MP3 juggernaut.

So, while Fraunhofer/Thomson may have all the right in the world to say stupid things, it's definitely a case of kicking a man when he's down. The Ogg Vorbis project is continuing on its own without commercial backing. You're talking about a double-whammee here. Hardware manufacturers that support Ogg Vorbis might step away, and nifty audio companies may not step up to the plate and bat (with funding) for the Little Free Encoder That Could. Maybe it's time for some of the IPO-happy Linux companies with multi-million dollar warchests to speak up.

You would think that research institutes and their army of representatives have better things to do than bully open-source developers. I mean, come on! The MP3 format is the undisputed champion of multi-platform audio encoding. They're up there on the Napster throne, and they're being heralded as people who bring the world together by granting us a small format so we can pass audio files to our buddies.

So, let's get this straight. The king looks down on the small group of peasants, who were just evicted from their riverside shack, and claims they've stolen the golden contents of the royal coffers. I don't think so.

Henri Linde, do your homework. If you don't shape up soon, I'm calling your parents in for a conference.

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