Parsing the “open” in Adobe’s Open Source Media Framework announcement

It’s not necessarily surprising that during the week of O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention (aka OSCON), companies release open source code — just as they often release flashy consumer products during tradeshows to garner the most buzz from contingent news cycles.

Adobe logoSo it goes with Adobe’s announcement today that they’re releasing two new open source projects, one for rendering text on the web and the other — the Open Source Media Framework — for playing back video and streaming content.

While TechCrunch chose to regurgitate Adobe’s press release, ZDNet’s Dana Blankenhorn reported at least one angle of the the significance of this announcement:

It may have been upstaged by Microsoft but Adobe’s strategy with its Open Source Media Framework looks very similar.

That strategy is to co-opt the term open source, make it corporate, and maintain dominance of the future.

Microsoft is supporting Linux tools so Linux can live in a Windows world, and Adobe is delivering an open source project so that open source, as a concept, can live in its world of corporate media.

At stake in this case is the standard for video in HTML 5.0. The World Wide Web consortium has a bias in favor of royalty-free, open source standards. While the H.264 codec had market dominance, it had no open source street cred.

The corporate nature of the Adobe effort is emphasized on this page, where it lists “plug-in partners” from the worlds of advertising, publishing, and analytics. Its goal is to drive the Adobe Flash platform. That means Adobe’s Open Video Player, code-named Strobe

It has already achieved big success since HTML 5 stopped specifying Ogg Theora in June, meaning no codec is currently specified. Don’t say no is a big step on the way to saying yes to H.264.

In the standards war open source is a necessary coating. We will now see whether open source is just that, a cloak on corporate ambition, or a true bottom-up phenomenon driven by communities like Ogg Theora.

Dana covers much of the concerns that I have about this announcement — so I’ll simply let his analysis stand.

What I want to highlight here, as I’ve done before, is the point that he makes about [co-opting] the term open source, [making] it corporate, and [maintaining] dominance of the future.

A year ago I wrote about parsing the “open” in Facebook’s then-called “fbOpen” platform, taking them to task for licensing their code under the Common Public Attribution License and offering up only a portion of their platform — which came handicapped with all kinds of redistribution restrictions.

A year on and the results of Facebook’s approach are evident: no external Facebook community has developed; no alternative open source Facebook Platform implementations have been attempted. Facebook is still roundly in charge of the platform and get to use the term “open” as though it means something.

Adobe and Microsoft are now engaged in similar forms of open-washing, applying the tastes-great, less-filling label, while doing everything they can to maintain their control and dominance in a given area — further cementing the historic distinction between “free” and “open”.

Adobe is clearly concerned about the progress of the HTML5 video tag and is coming out aggressively against it, shielding themselves in the cloth of “open” in an attempt to staunch criticism and dissent. One needs only to examine the language of the Open Video Player project or consider the “partners” involved to realize that nothing about the “Open Video Player” project has anything to do with open and everything to do with inhibiting a free and open media web from emerging.

In my estimation, the hallmark of empty “open” rhetoric is incomplete or conflicting legal guidance and documentation — since this is the information that determines how you may be able to modify, redistribute or contribute to a project. Specifically, Adobe has released the OSMF under v1.1 of the Mozilla Public License (annotated version), but uses this patent policy: “By releasing OSMF under MPL 1.1, Adobe is granting certain patent rights to this code. Adobe may seek patents for innovations in OSMF to defend its technologies against patent assertions.”

While this kind of language makes perfect business sense, it is anti-community and creates FUD.

For example, if someone wanted to try to take the OSMF and build it into a popular, open source web browser — or otherwise use the OSMF to advance the HTML5 video work (outrageous as that idea may be!) — it is unclear whether such use would be permitted by Adobe under the terms of this policy.

In some respects, this is why the Open Web and Apache Foundations exist: to clarify legal issues like these and make it possible for companies and developers to maintain reasonable expectations about the projects to which they contribute and collaborate on.

Contrast Adobe’s above patent policy with the patent grant in the Apache 2.0 license:

3. Grant of Patent License. Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, each Contributor hereby grants to You a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable (except as stated in this section) patent license to make, have made, use, offer to sell, sell, import, and otherwise transfer the Work, where such license applies only to those patent claims licensable by such Contributor that are necessarily infringed by their Contribution(s) alone or by combination of their Contribution(s) with the Work to which such Contribution(s) was submitted. If You institute patent litigation against any entity (including a cross-claim or counterclaim in a lawsuit) alleging that the Work or a Contribution incorporated within the Work constitutes direct or contributory patent infringement, then any patent licenses granted to You under this License for that Work shall terminate as of the date such litigation is filed.

If you want to protect and promote open source and freedom in the cloud, understanding these legal issues are essential to evaluating the claims to “open” that companies like Adobe, Microsoft and Facebook have made and continue to make with announcement like today’s. It’s also critical to remember that there’s much more at stake here than just source code transparency — what happens with video and media on the web and in HTML5 can have a great amount of impact on the potential business opportunities for Silverlight and Flash — and Microsoft and Adobe (and Google and Apple) will do whatever it takes to ensure that their particular version of the future is secure — including co-opting “open” to make it so. Those of us who believe in the essentialness of openness and freedom of choice on the web must continue to remain vigilant about such abuses, distortions and misappropriations of the term “open” — and do what we can to spread awareness of the importance of free and unfettered technology development.

7 thoughts on “Parsing the “open” in Adobe’s Open Source Media Framework announcement”

  1. Hi Chris, am I correctly understanding your core concerns as “What does that ‘reserve patents’ clause mean?” and “I’m concerned that people get confused by over-reliance on simple labels like ‘open'”?

    Or perhaps the core is “Can my JavaScript/Theora efforts align with the Adobe-initiated video client conventions?”

    (I don’t think the assumption in your sixteenth paragraph is well-founded, as recent events should have proven… the Strobe project makes it easier and more predictable to create fully-featured video interfaces.)

    jd/adobe

  2. Hi John, thanks for your comment.

    I would say yes, you’ve summarized my concerns fairly well.

    I think a major challenge is, as you’ve said, the fluid definition of “open” — and as I tried to suggest with this post — how one should parse the many iterations found in the wild. For example, is Adobe using “open” in the same way that Ubuntu does? And if not, then why? And how is their definition different?

    Perhaps my biggest concern is what “open” conceals — especially when it comes to software patents. As you know, the online video space is littered with all kinds of patents that inhibit freely implementing video solutions — and in some cases, even in freely consuming content with whatever software, applications or devices I might choose.

    I’ve also pointed out that the lack of visible source code for most Flash and Adobe Air applications also imperils the “freedom” that “open” once indicated — and that I believe is essential for the health of the web at large.

    What I would most like to see along with this announcement is a clear indication of how Adobe intends the OSMF to be understood in terms of the HTML 5 video tag — whether it is a competitor, complement or completely unrelated. At least then I could allay my suspicions and speak more credibly about this strategy and whether I think it’s good or bad.

    Until then, unfortunately, I’m only able to ask more questions about this approach — and cast aspersions on Adobe’s approach to going “open”.

    I’d love to be enlightened!

  3. Thanks, understood, and agreed… nailing down terms like “open”, “Web 2.0″, “The Open Web” and so on is difficult.

    … I used to work in the organic produce field in San Francisco in the 1980s, and we had issues with “all-natural”, “organic”, “certified” and the rest. We were making progress to getting these words defined and enforced when NRDC & Meryl Streep flooded-the-zone with the Alar story, and the definition got changed out from under us. No direct relevance to “open” today, but I’ve been affected by similar campaigns going astray in the past, for what that’s worth.

    For “how Adobe intends the OSMF to be understood in terms of the HTML 5 video tag”, I’d tend to go with “only peripherally related”… the initiative is seeking ways to more easily construct video interfaces that others can understand, particularly when third-party features such as viewing analytics or social layers are added in. These would only become relevant when the browser invokes Adobe Flash Player via the OBJECT/EMBED tags, and the proposed VIDEO tag seems a distinctly separate mechanism.

    btw, for “coopting ‘open'”, there’s an interesting description from Adobe cofounder Charles Geschke about what they had to do to make PostScript succeed:
    http://blogs.adobe.com/jd/2008/09/geschke_on_practical_standards.html

    jd/adobe

  4. Actually, when I talk about the co-optation of open, I talk about the organic and green movements as prime examples of co-opted movements.

    Of course, some of their goals were achieved — and awareness was raised — but their impact was also watered down.

    Any successful movement will see this happen to them — especially if they want to affect the mainstream. I understand that — but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be vigilant about the process as it’s happening.

    For what it’s worth, I do welcome Adobe’s moves into more transparent development and that both Microsoft and Adobe are talking about openness in very different ways. At some point you have to look at the actions and evaluate them for what they are — rather than colored by the past. Still, demanding more openness and more transparency is worthwhile, in my estimation, if it continues to force companies that have a history of being less-than-forthcoming to toe the line and embrace openness and all the benefits that I believe come with it.

    Your clarification is helpful — though I’m not completely convinced. Of course I’ll just have to watch this space and see how things play out. If Adobe were embracing and promoting the HTML5 video work, of course I’d have no ground to stand on, but that’s why this is an interesting story, no? ;)

  5. Microsoft had made great strides in agreeing to collaborate with the open source community. I’m glad Adobe is doing the same. Users need open standards badly especially for video because it’s a pain to work with conflicting codecs — an ordinary user wouldn’t know the first thing about solving that problem. It’ll be a great benefit to the open source community because it’ll help boost open source video editing software. Personally I’ve found it difficult to even compile and have them run on my computer. There’s just a lot of steps and people who really need it (i.e. media activists on the run) won’t be able to use it. It’s now up to the community now to make it awesome.

  6. If you take a look at what the Open Source Media Framework is and download the files, you will see it’s a bunch of SWC files (compiled code to be used in Flash projects) and ActionScript source files. So porting it over to the browser to help the HTML5 video tag is not really possible without browsers using a similar video API that is found in the Flash Player. Adobe could had released the code under a different license and I don’t think it would have mattered to browsers, as there isn’t any code there for them to use.

    As a long time Flash developer to me this looks like Adobe continuing to expand on the success they have had with open sourcing the Flex framework, rather than any reaction to the HTML5 video tag. In the past Flash components that Macromedia and then Adobe released were part of the Flash IDE, where Macromedia/Adobe would own the ActionScript source code. This proved problematic to Flash developers, as no software is ever completely bug-free and there would always be unforseen use cases where problems would occur with these components. Unfortunately, Flash developers couldn’t share their fixes publicly online because they did own the source code. With the Flex framework, everything is much more complex as there’s a lot more ActionScript code involved that does a lot more work and had Adobe not open sourced the code, I don’t think the code base would be as nearly as good as it is. There’s a large community around the Flex framework, with all sorts of patches, fixes and extensions that would not exist had the Flex code not been made open source. Adobe’s would have had a weaker product and possibly sold fewer copies of their tooling Flex Builder as the result of it.

    Now Adobe could have sold just the compiled files to their video framework without the ActionScript source code to Flash developers separately or included it with either the Flash IDE or Flash Builder 4. However, I think Adobe recognizes that making it open source means a lot better product in the end and benefits their business better than if they kept ownership of the code.

    I imagine we will continue to Adobe building things in ActionScript and then open sourcing the code, as it proves to be a successful business plan for Adobe. Especially as Adobe seems to be taking more of an approach of providing low-level API for things in the Flash Player and then building a higher level API in ActionScript. This is what Adobe has done with the new text engine in Flash Player 10 and the Text Layout Framework. Developers can use the high-level commands of the TLF to develop quickly, however if they are not happy with something they still have access to the low-level API. However, Flash developers would not have that freedom if Adobe had built the TLF directly into the Flash Player. If Adobe continues with this approach then expect more frameworks to created and then open sourced by Adobe in the future.

    Meanwhile, Adobe AIR uses WebKit (which Adobe contributes to) to render HTML content and I imagine a future version of AIR will support the new HTML5 tags including the video tag. With that support it only makes sense for Adobe to build in HTML5 support for Dreamweaver. Adobe gives out the Flash Player for free and even gives out a free open source compiler, so where they make their money is providing tooling. Ignoring the HTML5 tag would likely result in lost of revenue for Dreamweaver as other HTML editors will likely include support.

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