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About Xiph

A little bit about us, what we do, and why you should care

A market-speak summary of the Xiph.Org Foundation might read something like: "Xiph.Org is a collection of open source, multimedia-related projects. The most aggressive effort works to put the foundation standards of Internet audio and video into the public domain, where all Internet standards belong." ...and that last bit is where the passion comes in.

Xiph.Org is about open source and the ideals for which free software stands. Open source is not a fad any more than the Internet is. It is a necessary force driving innovation and the Internet forward while protecting the interests of individuals, artists, developers and consumers.

We're about bringing open source and open source ideals to multimedia...and media on the Internet needs us.

"Why do I need open source? I'm not a hacker."

Closed source software is not evil, nor is it necessarily inferior in quality to open source. What is certain, however, is that closed source and closed protocols do not serve the public interest; they exist by definition to serve the bottom line of a corporation. The foundations of the Internet today are built of a long, hardy history of open development, free exchange of ideas and unprecedented levels of intellectual cooperation. These foundations continue to weather the storm caused by the corporate world's rush to cash in.

It is not a coincidence that Microsoft was blind to the phenomenon of the Internet for so long. The burgeoning Internet was against their very way of thinking; a Microsoft Internet (tm) would have been profit-directed, designed by the same people who considered 'on-demand TV' the great innovation of the future. Microsoft Internet, if profitable, would have been followed by the release of IBM's marginally compatible OS/Internet, Borland's TurboInternet, ad absurdum. The Net, as designed by warring corporate entities, would be a battleground of incompatible and expensive 'standards' had it actually survived at all.

The Internet exists today and continues to move forward despite, not because of, corporate self-interest; critical mass passed the point of no return long before Microsoft and Netscape tried to salt the earth of their rivals. The great advances in computer engineering and science came from research labs and universities, freely shared with the rest of the world. You would not be reading this at your PC, workstation or iMac today if Microsoft held a patent on TCP/IP.

The point is not that companies that try to make money on the new popularity of the net are in some way inherently immoral or greedy. Rather, the point is that companies must not be allowed to use the infrastructure we all depend upon as a weapon against their rivals to the detriment of all others. The Internet is a common resource and as with other cooperatively shared resources, the "Tragedy of the Commons" looms large. Competitive behavior dictates that eventually a company will act on their own interests to the detriment of all others unless a mechanism exists to prevent it.

Commodity standards and software must be free because open source is that controlling mechanism. We're the only mechanism we've got.

"Why does multimedia specifically need open source?"

Example: An 'open' standard closes

In September of 1998, the world of Internet media took an unexpected (but long dreaded) turn when Fraunhofer IIS sent a "letter of infringement" to several small commercial and open source MPEG audio layer 3 development projects.

In the letter, [Fraunhofer claims] that due to patents they hold related to MP3, they are entitled to royalties for any commercial players, all encoders (whether sold or given away), and also works of art sold in MP3 format.

The letter of infringement had an immediate effect on the free encoder programs with many being removed from their official web site. Affected encoders include Plugger, CDEX, soloH, 8Hz, Blade, Canna, and others. [...] Fraunhofer is demanding a royalty payment beginning at $25 per encoder. Additionally, a 1% or .01 per file royalty is also put forth as being required.

—mp3.com article by Michael Robertson

The projects affected had based their work on code long freely available in the ISO MPEG audio standard. The debate about whether or not Fraunhofer was within their rights or not is beside the point; this is an illustration of the amount of control commercial entities will attempt to exert over commodity standards; this meddling is detrimental to open efforts and deadly to business (except for members of the MPEG consortium that is). Keep in mind that MPEG is considered among the most open multimedia standards (at least until the 800-lb. gorilla members of MPEG manage to sue the smaller encoder efforts out of existence); there are few or no cutting-edge open standards for streamed audio or video on the Internet today. Closed competition has just made matters worse; now there are several dominant and entirely incompatible closed 'standards'.

Our purpose is to open the field up a bit. Unfortunately we're not fighting on this front alone. Music and media on the net today also face corporate domination of the content itself ...

Music isn't an art, it's an industry.

Internet media issues don't apply solely to source code or information format. Controlling the music itself is a burning issue for the music industry.

—and industry is the key word here. Music is no longer an expression of the soul or the work of an artist; it's a 'product' that is manufactured, packaged, catalogued, distributed, managed, regulated, and above all sold. Music is just another vehicle for maximizing profits. The RIAA, mainly a front for the recording industry that supports the status quo, trumpets loudly that the Internet is the greatest threat to artists that the world has ever known... at the same time that the RIAA is making a desperate grab to control this new distribution infrastructure. The great irony is that the Internet might indeed be an artist's worst nightmare-- if the RIAA succeeds:

...corporate mergers are squeezing hundreds of musicians out of the business without even giving them the rights to their recordings, and executives of major record labels are meeting behind closed doors to develop a way to police and control the distribution of music on the Internet.
Putting control of the Internet in the hands of the corporations means that a utopian musical vision may be dying. ...the chances of a dystopian world are increasing, one in which record companies have even greater control over music distribution

--the New York Times, Monday, May 17, 1999, article by Neil Strauss

One major push in the RIAA effort to control the music distribution infrastructure of the Internet is to legislate mandatory 'digital watermarks' for playback. Players that do not look for these 'watermarks' or play the music anyway will be illegal. Make an educated guess as to who will control the watermarks.

the record industry has a plan to force hardware and software companies to exclusively adopt its Secure Digital Music Initiative as the standard for delivering music online. ...SDMI backers want manufacturers to build a time-bomb trigger into their products that, when activated at a later date, would prevent users from downloading or playing non-SDMI-compliant music. The hardware would initially support MP3 and other compressed file formats, but a signal from the RIAA would activate the blocking trigger.

--Wired News article by Christopher Jones

a history lesson

The current position and function of the music industry is an invented one. Approximately one lifetime ago, recordings were not technologically possible. With the advent of recorded sound, enterprising businessmen (Thomas Edison, a worthy predecessor of Bill Gates, and Columbia Music, just as tough and nasty) found that prepackaged recordings could be turned out in endless, identical quantity for very little cost and sold.

This wasn't an entirely new idea; an example of a preceding 'packaged performance' technology is the player piano roll. It is interesting to note, however, that these rolls were held by the courts to be uncopyrightable; the music itself was protected, but the 'performance' was not. The music industry originally lobbied the courts and Congress to keep these formats copyright-free so that it would not owe artists any royalties; in 1908, the Supreme Court ruled that phonograph records and player piano rolls did not fall under copyright.

It is important to note that selling recordings was a tenable business plan only because the average person could not produce a recording. If the phonograph record were cheaply reproducible in that day, the prepackaged music industry would never have existed as it would have been impossible from the very beginning to prevent people from making copies which were, at the time, entirely legal.

Congress changed the copyright law in 1909 to explicitly grant composers royalties on recordings sold. At the time, the music industry protested the decision bitterly; eventually it settled for requiring artists to sign over copyright on all work as a standard element of a recording contract.

The copyright protects the record label, not the artist.

(an article on the subject from CNET)

Fast forward to the 1970s

The undoing of the distribution profit juggernaut began with the compact cassette tape, a development greeted by as much wailing and gnashing of teeth within the walls of Music Inc. as MP3 is causing today. Although the copy wasn't as good as the original, it was cheap and easy to make. Copying commercial music was once only the domain of organized crime; now any individual could make a copy trivially. The industry tried to outlaw the compact cassette, then settled for taxing it and legislating against copying.

Digital audio tape (DAT) caused the next uproar; a perfect copy was now possible. The music industry players, forerunners to the RIAA, sought to destroy this technology and mostly succeeded; DAT never caught on at any sizable level. It is interesting to note that "small-time" artists depend heavily on DAT for production and recording; this is practically the only music segment that ever bought into DAT. Clearly the RIAA didn't have their interests at heart.

Computers, the Internet and especially MP3 have now made the copy easier, cheaper and more convenient than the prepackaged content on sale.

That the copy costs nothing concerns intellectual property, a real worry for artists. That the distribution costs nothing is what really motivates the anti-MP3/anti-Internet effort. Copyright, once bitterly contested by the music industry, is now clung to as a weapon to preserve the distribution chain.

Copyright law has always been more about protecting the interests of publishers than those of creators. The Internet in general, and MP3 in particular, have drastically reduced the costs (financial, convenience, material, distribution) of creators getting their material out to their audience, and have *almost* made it trivial for audience members to *directly* pay creators for access to their work.

The middlemen have become irrelevant. The smart ones are devising new business models --- O'Reilly isn't going away because they are perceived as genuinely adding value and lots of their customers would buy their books even if they're available for download.

I just paid $20 for Neal Stephenson's new book; he probably got about $3 of my money, if that. The other $17 went to the distribution chain, of which *maybe* $1 goes to people who actually contributed to the book --- editors who actually edited, proofreaders, etc.

Eventually, a favorite author will release a new novel and I will pay $5, of which the majority will go to the author and all but a few pennies to other real contributors, for access to it with rights to print one copy.

The middlemen are merely fighting a rearguard action against the tide of history; a delaying action that may alter *when* I will buy a book that way, but not the ultimate reality.

—Carl Alexander <xela@mit.edu>

The music industry finds itself in a position where the basic assumption behind its original business model (the recording is too expensive for a person to reproduce him or herself and the distribution can be tightly controlled for maximal profit) is no longer true. The music industry feels extremely threatened. It should. This is a major evolutionary pressure.

Evolutionary? Of course; commercial music is faced with extinction only as long as it refuses to adapt, as long as it refuses to loosen its grip on the endless easy profits it believes it is entitled to. The industry is not acting to protect artists or the artists' interests (bards, musicians and storytellers thrived long before there was an industry to 'protect' them), it is not acting to prevent musicians from being 'driven out of business' (it impoverishes artists itself); it is acting to preserve the status quo and its own profit-inflated bulk. It's quite possible for the music industry to refashion itself, but rather than evolving and thriving in a new niche, the Dinosaurs, staggering under their own smothering weight, are trying to legislate the Mammals out of existence.

The double-whammy

From one side, we see groups (Fraunhofer, IBM, Thomson, Progressive Networks, Microsoft et al.) trying to control music technological infrastructure (MPEG, TwinVQ, etc) to be used as weaponry against their competitors. On the other front, we have the music industry trying to squeeze all the cash they can out of the content to maintain their enormous, recently obsolete bulk. In case they don't succeed in eliminating electronic music formats, they too are making a major bid to control the infrastructure.

There are multi-trillion dollar interests represented in the above clash. Businesses that only have a few million dollars are entirely outclassed.

As an individual, I expect I'm no longer on the map.

Or am I? Ogg and other projects of Xiph.Org are my way of doing something about the imbalance; a good programmer can still change the world. Big players may want to utterly dominate the Net, but they don't yet. If the rest of us are lucky, Xiph.Org, the Open Source community and Ogg will help make that impossible.

—Monty (monty@xiph.org)
May 14, 1999