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A Look at Open Video

What is Open Video?

This chapter aims to give a very short summary of a working definition of open video we arrived at as part of the Open Video Forum and invites you to comment.

By the end of this task you should be able to:

  • Understand a bit about why people care about open video 
  • Play an 'open video' file

Tools you will need for this task:

  • Internet Connection
  • VLC Player - available for Mac, Linux & Windows


Our working definition of Open Video

As we started the course sprint, we had a quick discussion of what open video meant for us in the context of our projects. The areas we agreed on were the use of Free Software tools for creating and distributing video and the adoption of freely-licensed formats, or at least formats using open standards.

To promote open video is it important to make material available in free and open formats. However, practically you may have to also provide versions in more restrictive formats like h264 to reach users on closed platforms like iOS. This is because vendors prevent their users from using free formats. There are pragmatic reasons preventing video developers from taking a purist approach to video distribution.

Whenever possible, it is good to pressure vendors to adopt the use of free and open formats. We aim to support free and open standards by the creation of this course and other materials. While h264 may not we free of restrictions we can use free tools to take it apart, create it and deepen our knowledge of the subject in general.

Recent debates about open video

There are many blog posts online which outline a tension between pragmatism and trying to support and promote open video. Many of these are about the continued use of the patented h264 format despite attempts to move video distributors towards more open codecs.

Take a look at of some of these blog posts. Don't get bogged down by the geek babble details but do get a flavour of the debate. It will give you a sense of how contested the issue of open standards is, as commercial interests continue to clash with free software philosophies.

Patently Free formats?

An open specification should allow anyone to implement their own player, encoder or other tools to encode or decode videos in a free codec. It is important that this can be done without requiring a special contract or patent agreement. While H264 is a big step forward compared to proprietary codecs owned by a single vendor like Real or Microsoft, it still requires anyone implementing an encoder or decoder and even anyone distributing a video in h264 to pay license fees for patents covering algorithms used in the format to do so.

For videos distributed on the web for free this has been removed but if you sell or distribute videos on disks or broadcast you need to pay up. Free formats like Ogg Theora or WebM dont have such restrictions. The allow anyone to freely create tools and distribute content as they like.

For more info you can read this article about The H.264 Licensing Labyrinth

Task: Play an open video file

While licensing and patent issues have a real impact and these things do matter, we want this course to be fun and practical too. When people argue about these kinds of esoteric issues it is easy to be reminded of the 'splitters' featured in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

As an fun activity download and play this short clip from the film provided as a fair use illustration of the point we are making.

Download WebM video clip

The clip is encoded to the WebM open format, so you will need to use a video player which supports open video formats to use it. If you are not sure how to do this then install VLC Player which is available here -  http://www.videolan.org

First Impressions?

What are your first impressions of the world of open video? Do you think that people should be pragmatic or purist about open video? Maybe you have questions you want to ask.  Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments.


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