Ogg’s Creator On Why Open Media Formats Still Rule

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In the past few weeks, the Ogg family of patent-free media formats have received something of a boost. Some developments playing to Ogg’s advantage have been unintentional, such as Microsoft’s renewed claims to ownership of open-source software patents and online music retailers’ shift towards DRM-free sales. Others, such as the Free Software Foundation’s launch of a new Ogg awareness campaign at PlayOgg.org, have been directly proactive. Read more about the re-kindled interest in Ogg in the Wired News story, "How to Live an Open-Source Musical Life with Ogg Vorbis."

We got the chance to ask Ogg creator and Xiph.org co-founder Chris "Monty" Montgomery a few questions about these developments and what they mean for the future of Ogg, Digital Rights Management technologies and those ubiquitous little music machines.

Monty’s answers, sent to us over e-mail (he says he was far too busy hacking code for a phone call) are presented here verbatim.

Wired News: Would you care to comment on the Free Software Foundation’s move to promote Ogg?

Monty: I’ve been wondering when they’d finally get around to it. I also suspect the position they’re taking has more to do with patents than DRM although the intersection of the two in the news might be what finally prompted them to act.

Patents have been the elephant in the room for so long it’s hard to remember when that wasn’t true. DRM, on the other hand, has been dead on arrival since it first popped up. It doesn’t practically exist except in a legal fantasy world.

Case in point: for some reason I can’t get Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM to work right on my one Windows machine. The player always crashes while playing licensed files. So I took the easy route; rather than figuring out why WMP is crashing, which I don’t have time to do, I just downloaded a program to strip all the DRM off Windows Media files. Then they play fine on the Windows machine and I can also play them on Mac and Linux.

WN: Do you think the format stands a better chance of adoption now that Amazon and Apple are moving partially to DRM-free sales?

Monty: First off, "DRM-free" is a very good thing. That doesn’t really have a lot to do with Ogg aside from the fact that we also strongly discourage DRM. MP3, which is still the defacto standard everywhere, never had DRM so this is more about Apple and Amazon finally owning up to reality. No customer wants DRM, period. Everybody who wasn’t sitting on $100,000,000 already knew that.

The good it does for Ogg is just part of the good it does the whole industry. The precedent of a few large players stepping up and saying "DRM does nothing but drive away customers" makes it more certain that DRM-free formats (like Ogg) will not become illegal. Don’t laugh, it’s been a real if somewhat farfetched fear. For example, see the Media Technologies lawsuit that claims any digital media file for sale in the US that doesn’t include DRM violates the DMCA.

Ogg’s lack of dominance can be boiled down to three reasons that have nothing to do with DRM.

WN: Is the lack of player support on the iPod still going to stand in the way?

Monty: Of course it does. Every iPod in the country could offer Ogg support tomorrow if Apple wanted it. However, Apple is a member of MPEG which owns and licenses all the patents on the mainstream formats (MP3 and AAC) and by adopting Ogg they’d be cutting into their own license revenue stream.

Remember: everyone not part of MPEG is paying Apple for every MPEG player, every MPEG file, every MPEG piece of software they produce. If they used Ogg instead, Apple wouldn’t get that money. So, it’s obvious Apple has no reason to encourage a switch.

Snappy hipster commercials aside, Apple is in business to make money, just like everyone else. We’ve been saying for years that there’s more money to be made without DRM than with it, and a few very large players are finally coming to agree. It’s a nice coincidence that DRM-free is also better for the public and our country as well. Once we also finally get across that there’s more money to be made without software patents, we’ll have achieved a large chunk of our mission.

By the way, not many people realize Microsoft also has to license the MPEG patents for Windows Media; MPEG has a near complete monopoly on digital media technology. We’re pretty much the only independent technology left today.