The web grew as fast as it did because of its neutral design. Open standards, free software and transparent technologies have empowered a lot of this development. Because of this open environment, web developers can easily create web pages, software developers can build upon existing projects to extend what we can do on the net, and users can browse the web, send email, and use a wide range of applications.
With online video however, almost all of the basic technologies for its creation and playback are not free or transparent. For example, if a software developer makes a new video player, they must pay royalties to the companies that hold certain patents in order to distribute it legally. These patents (like most software patents) lock down extremely basic ideas. For example: one company has patented the idea of storing pieces of an image from left to right, top to bottom! Taken together, the thousands of patents on video techniques stifle the emergence of new ways of distributing and interacting with media.
Patent Encumbered Video
For those concerned with the dominance of private interests over public life, this is an obvious problem: how could the basic ideas necessary to develop software be controlled by a small number of corporations? It creates very concrete problems as well: the global movement for free software cannot include support for many video formats with its products. And because patents make it costly for developers to distribute their own video players, developers depend on a few products from Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe. On the web, over 98% of online video is delivered using Flash.
The problems are not just within the realm of software development - if you create or publish video online then patent-encumbered technologies affect you directly. Patent holders have the power to extract fees from content producers and MPEG LA, which represents patent holders of the popular MPEG video technologies, charges license fees from television broadcasters, DVD distributors, and others. At this moment they don't charge for online distribution, but at the end of 2009 they are expected to announce new royalty terms, and these new terms could threaten independent publishers of online video.
A Better Way
Now, however, we have an online video technology that anyone is free to use, study, improve, and distribute without needing permission or paying fees. This technology is called Ogg Theora (or just 'Theora'). Some parts of Theora are patented, but the owners of those patents have granted a permanent, irrevocable, royalty-free patent license to everyone. Theora carefully avoids any patents held by traditional patent holders: to get around the ridiculous patent of image storing mentioned above, Theora stores video image information from bottom to top instead of top to bottom!
Recognizing that Theora is a crucial ingredient for the freedom of our internet, Mozilla, Opera and Google have announced support of Theora video for future or current releases of their browsers. This means that millions of users will be able to watch Theora videos using their browser, without the need for extra software. The work of the free software community, with support from Mozilla, Wikipedia and others, has brought Theora to the same level of quality as state-of-the-art video technologies.
There are other important projects with similar goals, like Dirac, an effort spearheaded by the BBC. But the exciting thing about Theora is that it's here now, supported by popular tools, and ready for mass adoption. By learning how to use Theora and involving it in your work, you can help make the web more exciting and more free.