Licensing Wars

Is the WebM Project Really Open Source?

At Google IO, Google vice president of product management Sunder Pichai announced the creation of the WebM project and the release of the VP8 codec.

Despite initial support from the community, the WebM project has run into some early problems over licensing, after it came to light that the new license Google is using for the project is one that hasn't been submitted to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for approval. In fact, the "field of use" restriction in the patent grant, has caused further speculation that the license cannot possibly be approved by the OSI. This would mean that the WebM project cannot be classed open source.

Google's open source and public sector engineering manager Chris DiBona has followed this up by posting a request that the OSI delay consideration of Google’s WebM license, while the company determine “certain compatibility issues internally.” He then levelled some surprise criticism at the organisation, calling for them to open up the list archives regarding any discussions of WebM. “We are not comfortable with OSI being closed,” he wrote.

Although Chris DiBona received support from Lawrence Rosen of the Rosenlaw & Einschlag technology law firm, his post has attracted much negative feedback from the OSI. Simon Phipps replied “it does sound a little as if you want to accuse the OSI Board of something here, Chris, or frame Google as a pioneer for good at the expense of OSI,” and pointing out that “most others engage with OSI before they publish a new license and declare it open source.”

However, is it as bad as it seems? Prior to the mailing list spat, OSI Board member Simon Phipps had blogged that the current WebM license could be easily rectified to be more open source friendly, and has stated that “speaking as a member of the OSI Board I'd love to see them submit a templatised version of this license for approval.”

Regardless of Google's call for more time, and however 'closed' or 'open' OSI may be, the modifications that Google need to make to their new license appear to be minor (by the OSI board's own admission) and the initial announcement received much support from the community. Google want to see VP8 codec open sourced, and the OSI have previously expressed positive feelings about the project – now all they need to do is reach an agreement on the license.

Jessica Thornsby

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