How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards V

Ten years ago, people were saying that open source would never be able to best proprietary software. But what they overlooked was the fact that Apache had already beaten Microsoft's IIS Web server offering back in the mid-1990s, and had never...

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Ten years ago, people were saying that open source would never be able to best proprietary software. But what they overlooked was the fact that Apache had already beaten Microsoft's IIS Web server offering back in the mid-1990s, and had never lost that leadership once.

Since then, we've had GNU/Linux trouncing Windows in the area of supercomputers, and arguably winning in the mobile space with Android. And so the refrain became: yes, but open source will never succeed on the desktop. Against that background, this news is significant:

VideoLAN would like to thank VLC users 1 billion times, since VLC has now been downloaded more than 1 billion times from our servers, since 2005!

In case you haven't come across it:

VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and framework that plays most multimedia files as well as DVD, Audio CD, VCD, and various streaming protocols.

Taking a closer look at those billion downloads, there are some important points to note. First, that this is a cumulative figure, not a total installed base. The highest number of downloads was for version 1.1.11, which saw an impressive 188 million downloads. That's across all platforms excluding GNU/Linux:

We don't show Linux download statistics as most downloads for this OS are made through distributions.

Taking all those factors into account, I think it's safe to say that there are well in excess of 200 million copies of VLC being used around the world – maybe many more. That's a pretty staggering number, and certainly gives the lie to the claim that open source will never succeed on the desktop.

Apart from being an amazing piece of code (if you don't use it, I urge you to give it a try), VLC has a number of other interesting aspects. For example, VLC comes from the VideoLAN project, which is based in France, making it another example of European free software (along with a certain operating system kernel, among other things.) That's not just a matter of French pride in coding prowess: it is actually key to VLC's success.

The reason is that most digital video technologies have large numbers of patents associated with them in some jurisdictions, which would normally preclude free software implementations. But the VideoLAN team gets around that in a rather bold way - by ignoring them:

Neither French law nor European [patent] conventions recognize software as patentable (see French section below).

Therefore, software patents licenses do not apply on VideoLAN software.

It then concludes:

VideoLAN élabore et fournit des logiciels audiovisuels. L'association décline toute responsabilité quand à une utilisation illégale de ces logiciels.

That basically says if your use of VideoLAN's applications breaks any local laws, it's your problem, not theirs.

That's an important point to note, because one of the arguments used by Microsoft in its attempts to undermine true open standards is to claim that actually there is no problem for open source projects to implement FRAND-licensed standards. In one of its documents sent to the Cabinet Office it wrote (available in both html and pdf formats.):

There are hundreds of FOSS projects in the marketplace implementing hundreds if not thousands of standards, so we have to ask "is this a real problem?" and "are there concrete examples where a company was unable (due to FOSS licensing constraints) to implement a standard in a FOSS product because it was unable to comply with the royalty requirement related to essential claims?"

VideoLAN shows how real that problem is. There simply aren't many free software projects implementing video standards, say, because it's impossible for them to comply with FRAND licensing. The only software that has flourished in this sector – VLC – has done so because the project is located in France, with laws there that it believes allow it to use those video standards without needing any licence at all. And as the project's final comment makes clear, VideoLAN is not claiming that its users are covered by any licence. On the contrary, it explicitly warns them that it takes no responsibility for any "illegal use" of its projects.

I suggest that in many parts of the world, open source programs like VLC are indeed being used illegally, for the simple reason that VideoLAN has no licence to implement the video standards that are subject to patents in some parts of the world. Contrary to what Microsoft would have the Cabinet Office believe, the presence of FRAND-licensed standards has had a chilling effect on the production of certain classes of free software, precisely because of this problem.

VLC's billion downloads are a testimony to the fact that people are keen to run high-quality open source software on the desktop, even though – perhaps unbeknownst to them – their use of it in certain jurisdictions is almost certainly illegal. Allowing FRAND-based standards in the UK would ensure that even more open source software is throttled at birth; or, if written in other jurisdictions that do not recognise the need for any licensing, that it is used by people ignorant of, or indifferent to, the letter of the law – hardly something the UK government would want to encourage.

If you want to help minimise the use of restrictive FRAND-based standards in the UK, you still have time to make a submission to the consultation on open standards, which closes on 4 June. I urge you to do so.

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