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Google Chrome's Inclusion of FFMpeg Vs. the LGPL 245

An anonymous reader writes "Google has recently added FFMpeg to Chrome to better support HTML5's video element. FFMpeg is licensed under LGPL 2.1, which states that 'if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Library by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Library.' Google admits to having obtained a patent license for their use, but still claims they are not violating LGPL. Among the confused we find Håkon Wium Lie and Miguel de Icaza, who wonders what FSF might say. Google doesn't feel like asking FSF for clarification."
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Google Chrome's Inclusion of FFMpeg Vs. the LGPL

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  • by TD-Linux ( 1295697 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:06PM (#28245491)

    So, what you're telling us is that although all of us in the States have been using FFMpeg illegally without a license for years, when someone finally decides to try and be legal and purchase a license, now they are still in the wrong?

    Sounds like the FFMpeg people need to start dual-licensing or something - from what I can tell they are OK with people obtaining licenses to use FFMpeg.

    Of course, I'm still missing the biggest point here - since when do they need FFMpeg for HTML 5 support? It doesn't require any patented codecs, and they could always use DirectShow filters.

  • I should probably clarify that Google didn't say *which* libraries would be used, but I assume they were referring to Windows Media Player for Windows, Quicktime for Mac, and GStreamer for Linux. Someone in the know can probably confirm or deny.

  • by David Gerard ( 12369 ) <(ku.oc.draregdivad) (ta) (todhsals)> on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:22PM (#28245579) Homepage
    I must say, it seemed more than a little ... odd ... for the founder of a completely and utterly proprietary competitor to post off-topic messages to a mailing list trying to probe his direct competitor on their adherence to a free software license.
  • by umeboshi ( 196301 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:24PM (#28245595)

    Is there really an issue here? Is it impossible to freely redistribute Chrome? According to this page: []

    It seems that anybody can redistribute the code and/or binaries, with the possible exception of the parts that are trademarked (similar to Mozilla).

  • by spandex_panda ( 1168381 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:25PM (#28245603)
    I noticed that google does give credit to ffmpeg on its "about" page, funnily enough I checked it out last night and clicked the ffmpeg link to read about what they had to say! So I think it is now included.
  • by maz2331 ( 1104901 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:25PM (#28245607)

    I have to reserve judgement until I know the details of Google's patent deal. It is possible that it includes downstream use.

    All patent licenses are not the same. Some are a per-unit royalty, others are a lump-sum purchase of the use of the invention. It's even possible that Google did negotiate "downstream redistribution" of the library if they paid enough cash.

  • From the attached article I can gather that since FFMpeg uses the LGPL 2.1 (not 3.0) that their obtaining a third party license for something else that prohibits them from granting similar rights for that bit of code does not affect their ability to grant rights for use the FFMpeg libraries. As they put it:

    The fact that Party B may have a patent license with an unrelated third-party is irrelevant as long as it doesn't prevent Party B from granting people the rights LGPL 2.1 requires they grant them (namely, only those rights it in fact received from Party A).

    Again this all seems rather moot anyway. A lot of operating systems these days include FFMpeg libraries as well as the H.264 and AAC libraries (which is really what this is all about). I know people feel like the idea of linking native libraries from the OS (which may or may not be there) goes against the universality of the HTML5 video/audio spec (and I can't say I disagree), but it would seem that for something as ubiquitous and freely licensable as the FFMpeg libraries, this argument is a bit overblown.
  • by Todd Knarr ( 15451 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:35PM (#28245691) Homepage

    I think Google's relying on a technicality, but it's a significant one. In this case Google isn't the creator of the library, they received it from it's creator. So either it's creator could grant them an LGPL 2.1-compatible patent license, or the library can be distributed without a license, or it's creator couldn't have legally distributed the library to them. I think that, right or wrong, Google's probably on solid legal ground there. They didn't introduce the patented code into the library, they didn't create the library, so I don't think the law'll have much trouble allowing them to redistribute the code under the same terms and with the same rights as they got from it's creator.

    I think it's a situation the GPL and LGPL don't contemplate explicitly. The situation where Google was adding the infringing code to a library they received under (L)GPL terms and then redistributing the results, that's exactly what the v2 language covers. But I'm not sure even the v3 language covers the situation where the holder of the patent license isn't the one who put the infringing code into the library and where the person who did put it in doesn't hold a patent license and has no rights to grant downstream recipients. If the library was under LGPL v3 I think you could make an argument that the automatic grant of rights in paragraph 11 kicks in, since Google does hold a relevant patent license, and that if their license doesn't let them do what paragraph 11 requires then they can't redistribute, but LGPL 2.1 doesn't contain anything explicit corresponding to v3's paragraph 11.

    I think Google's right here, it does in fact come down to what the patent-holder says. If they sue Google and get an order blocking Google from distributing infringing code, then Google can't distribute the library. If the patent holders sue the library's author and get an order blocking distribution of the library without a patent license, Google can't distribute the library. But until then, Google can't be forced to add any rights that they didn't get when they received the library.

  • by Wesley Felter ( 138342 ) <> on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:39PM (#28245735) Homepage

    So, what you're telling us is that although all of us in the States have been using FFMpeg illegally without a license for years, when someone finally decides to try and be legal and purchase a license, now they are still in the wrong? Sounds like the FFMpeg people need to start dual-licensing or something

    Exactly. Unfortunately, they'll probably just say "we don't care about patents" [] which doesn't help anyone.

    Of course, I'm still missing the biggest point here - since when do they need FFMpeg for HTML 5 support? It doesn't require any patented codecs, and they could always use DirectShow filters.

    In reality Theora isn't that great and Google probably wants to save bandwidth, so they support H.264. Since XP/Vista includes no H.264 decoder, Google has to ship their own.

  • by jps25 ( 1286898 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @08:55PM (#28245819)

    Have you even read any of the messages on the mailing list?
    Hakon is simply asking for their interpretation of the LGPL. He even says that he's not a lawyer and understands the LGPL in a different way, the way he's been trained, a spec guy. Icaza says that he's just as confused as Hakon.
    How are his questions offtopic?

    I think you're quite trollish.

  • I've been participating in the threads themselves, as you'd know if you'd be reading them. The discussions are off-topic for working out HTML5, because H.264 is no way no how being required in HTML5 while software patents exist.
  • by jps25 ( 1286898 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @09:14PM (#28245941)

    Yes, I saw what you wrote and may I quote your trollish behaviour? []

    I question the relevance to HTML5 of someone from a completely
    proprietary software company closely questioning a direct competitor
    on their conformance to the GPL.

    Yea, you're not a troll at all.

  • by Brian Gordon ( 987471 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @09:17PM (#28245951)
    Exactly. It's only a problem if

    a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Library by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you

    But in the link, says

    I doubt its worth asking the fsf, since at least in the US, only the ffmpeg folks would have standing to enforce, so its their view that really matters.

    He should definitely look at the terms of his patent license instead of deciding whether it's worth asking permission. Also his comment is just stupid because any contributor to ffmpeg has "standing to enforce" and sue google.

  • Re:Here's a scenario (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stinerman ( 812158 ) <nathan.stine@gmail.cTEAom minus caffeine> on Sunday June 07, 2009 @09:35PM (#28246067) Homepage

    IANAL (but I try to keep up on patent/copyright law), but here's how I think that would go:

    gr8_phk: Here you are, sir. One compiled binary of FFMPEG, with source!
    customer: Thanks!

    patent_lawyer: Hold on there! You don't have a patent license; pay up gr8_phk!
    gr8_phk: I don't need a license, Google gave me one since I got this off of Google.
    patent_lawyer: Google didn't give you shit. Pay up!
    Google: He's right, we didn't give you anything.
    gr8_phk: Grr!

    FFMPEG developers: Wait a tick there Google! You can only use our code if you give everyone who got the source from you a patent license.
    Google: Well, that isn't the agreement we have with the patent holders. Sorry.
    FFMPEG developers: Fair enough, our lawyers will be suing you for copyright infringement.
    Google: Ha! You're going to sue us? I doubt it. We'll tie this up in court for years until you throw in the towel.
    FFMPEG developers: ...

  • by BZ ( 40346 ) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @09:44PM (#28246119)

    That's Chromium. It does not include ffmpeg. Chrome (which is not quite the same thing) does, and Chrome cannot in fact be redistributed without OK from Google last I checked.

  • The Chrome people say that you're getting a patent license for H.264, etc. if you use Chrome. Fine.

    The interesting question is "Does my patent license for H.264, etc. extend to any decoding, or only that done by Chrome?". Said in another way, is my patent license only good if I'm doing the decoding in Chrome or does it apply to decoding done by me? If it is the latter, then anyone who wants a patent license can just download Chrome -- now they have a free patent license.

  • Re:And it doesn't (Score:3, Interesting)

    by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Sunday June 07, 2009 @10:45PM (#28246487) Homepage Journal

    For a start, much as trolls such as yourself would like to portray Slashdot as being a group mind with a single opinion, that simply isn't the case. There's people on here who think copyright is great, there's people on here who think copyright is completely morally repugnant and there's people on here who sit somewhere in the middle suggesting that copyright is just "broken". But, as I happen to be in the group of people who think copyright is morally wrong, allow me to explain my position, and please accept that it is solely my own position and doesn't necessarily represent the views of others on this site. I, indeed, believe Google should be free to do with the FFMpeg code whatever the hell they want, regardless of what the LGPL, copyright law or patent law says. Until they actually cause physical harm to another person (and I have no idea how they'd go about doing that with the distribution of code) I say their actions are moral. However, my personal opinion of copyright law and patent law is completely irrelevant to the current discussion. We're talking about what Google are legally allowed to do.. not what they are morally obliged to do. I didn't make any statements about their moral obligations, nor would I, as I think what they're doing is morally fine.

    If copyright law is wrong, then nobody has to follow the GPL. You can't pick and choose which parts of copyright you want to serve you.

    Morally? No. Legally? Well that really depends on the copyright owners.. clearly they applied the LGPL to their code for a reason.. if they didn't intend to enforce their license then it was just pointless. It's perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about Google's legal obligations without implying anything about their moral obligations. But seeing as some people are confused about this, I hope specifically stating my opinion of their moral obligations has cleared it up.

    Now kindly go back under your bridge.

  • Not a problem? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:37AM (#28247135)

    In Russia, you don't need a patent license in order to use H.264 compression. Moreover, software patents and patents on algorithms are explicitly declared as invalid by the law. So, the patent clause in LGPL doesn't fire, and redistribution of ffmpeg is perfectly legal. As for the USA - it's their problem, after all. Developers of ffmpeg may just prohibit redistribution of ffmpeg in USA in order to avoid such legal questions. I don't care.

  • by curunir ( 98273 ) * on Monday June 08, 2009 @03:13AM (#28247851) Homepage Journal

    Also his comment is just stupid because any contributor to ffmpeg has "standing to enforce" and sue google.

    Regardless of the legality of what Google is doing, the point that only the ffmpeg folks are able to enforce the LGPL is still significant. Google's relationship with the project is likely quite good. They're sponsoring 9 students as part of their Summer of Code program. If one of the contributors were to file suit, it's likely that other project members could persuade that person to drop the suit.

    Even if they are in violation of the letter of the law, they're not really in violation of the spirit of the law. They're giving back to the open source community by releasing the source to their browser. And they're paying to add new functionality to ffmpeg. The only issue is that their legal team felt the need to cover the company by purchasing a license. And they would have been foolish not to, since the threat of a LGPL lawsuit is much less than a patent infringement lawsuit. AFAIK, even if they were to lose, they would be given a chance to come into compliance. And this only becomes an issue if someone who contributed to ffmpeg feels that this minor issue merits the hassle of a lawsuit and probably end any GSoC sponsorship for the project in the future...seems unlikely to me.

    So the point that only the ffmpeg contributor have standing to attempt to enforce the LGPL seems pretty important since it likely means that no one with the right to do so will go through a ton of hassle to iron out a few legal details when the company has been nothing but gracious towards the project as a whole and even towards the open source community as a whole. There's far too many companies violating the (L)GPL that are acting in bad faith attempting to leach off the open source community that would make better targets. ffmpeg even maintains a list of such companies on their site.

  • Partly wrong... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @03:37AM (#28247989) the very end, replace "FFMPEG Developers" by "FSF" and replace "our lawyers will be suing you" by "we will generate a shitload of negative publicity around this for Chrome and Google in general,", and you have an idea of what could happen instead.

  • Re:And it doesn't (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Ed Avis ( 5917 ) <> on Monday June 08, 2009 @04:28AM (#28248321) Homepage

    The patent license permits royalty-free redistribution of the Library...

    Really? So all that Fedora and other US-based Linux distributions must do to ship ffmpeg legally is to include Google Chrome (either the Windows version or some future Linux release) and use the ffmpeg library (or DLL) from that? Great news!

  • While not great and not officially in the spec yet, looks like Theora is doing it's job as the sub-standard least denominator codec. It's been appearing in random preview Opera, Firefox and Chrome builds. But given that H.264 is the spec and is as prevalent as it is, I can't see why they wouldn't include it either in Chrome. I mean, that is what their current movies are encoded in for the HQ format. Hopefully Theora will eventually replace mpeg though...
  • This is a non-issue (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:29AM (#28248915)

    This is not a complicated issue at all. Either ffmpeg requires patent license to use/redistribute or it doesn't. If it doesn't - no problem, nobody is in violation.

    If it does then Google doesn't have a license to redistribute but neither do the authors! Hence, Google are supplying the source code under exactly the same terms so there is no ground for complaint for ffmepg's authors. The fact that Google, lets say for their own peace of mind, bought a license to use any relevant patents is frankly irrelevant and none of anyone else's business.

  • by asdfndsagse ( 1528701 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @07:30AM (#28249239)


    It should be realized that the party who would enforce any such breach of copyright would be the people who hold copyright: its writers, whereby any suit on a breach of that clause would have to argue that there exist valid, applicable patents that apply to the capabilities GPL licenced code,. a stance copyright holders have not taken. [1] []

  • Re:Here's a scenario (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wrook ( 134116 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @08:54AM (#28249783) Homepage

    He's not being misleading, he's just not telling you everything. They are distributing the library without an attached patent license. *They* have a patent license for the library. The question is whether or not distribution requires the patent license.

    The heart of the issue is whether or not the functionality is used in the redistribution. I'm quite certain his take is that it isn't. The *running* of the application is what uses the functionality. Thus the user requires a license, not the distributor. Google is redistributing the library, but clearly they intend it to be "as is" without a patent license. If the user feels they need a patent license then they need to get one.

    This is a weakness of V2.1 of the LGPL. Contrast the wording in V2.1 with that in V3 (section 11) and you can see what's causing the problem. In V3 you have the clarification, ""Knowingly relying" means you have actual knowledge that, but for the patent license, your conveying the covered work in a country, or your recipient's use of the covered work in a country, would infringe one or more identifiable patents in that country that you have reason to believe are valid." In other words it relies on the patent if the *user's* use of the software requires the patent.

    Basically Google are covering their ass and simultaneously going against the spirit of the LGPL. But they are probably in the clear legally. Personally I think they are being weasels.

  • by petrus4 ( 213815 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:07AM (#28249907) Homepage Journal

    1) Give software away without restriction. Result: someone takes the code, incorporates it into their paid for product and using the revenue from their near monopoly blows the 'free' version out of the water. No more free version.

    Microsoft would tend to disagree with you, I'm sure. They managed to corner the market with a free product, in the case of Internet Explorer. Before you try and argue semantics simply because this won't be in support of your premise, it's true that they no longer have 100%; but they still wouldn't be that far below 90%.

    Before you also start bleating at me about how they were leveraging their monopoly, realise how well Google are doing in the market on search. Thus, it could work for them, whether or not it couldn't work for a smaller startup.

    Even with small startups, the whole point isn't to necessarily use the BSD license for everything. Use it for things that ought to have unencumbered reference implementations; video codecs are a good example. That way, it getting copied by other companies is entirely the point; some of said companies will add value to it (and close it) if they want, while others can also develop it but keep it open as they choose, while still others can rely on availability of at least the reference baseline.

    Corporations are entirely free to make closed, modified derivatives of Apache; again, if Stallman is right, why haven't they been destroyed yet?

    Your entire argument is fear-based; as all of the FSF's rationale is. If the, "corporations are going to destroy everything!" argument is valid, how come any of the BSDs still exist at all? Come to that, why didn't Microsoft destroy the WC3 after they acquired Internet Explorer? How come virtually any of the Internet's protocols still exist, rather than single, monopolised implementations? As I said above, Apache isn't licensed with the GPL; how come it hasn't been destroyed yet?

  • by Hecatonchires ( 231908 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:21AM (#28250065) Homepage
    I took "intellectual property lawyer" to mean works in the complex area of law surrounding contracts and licencing, and the interpretation and supposed violation of the above.
  • by Jamie Lokier ( 104820 ) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:46AM (#28250299) Homepage

    What's to stop me from writing a program that makes use of the copy of the codec installed by Chrome? I'm only using what the patent license said I could...

    While you might be right, it would be unenforceable, and therefore irrelevant and meaningless. Kinda like the injunctions against DeCSS.

    Similarly, what's to stop me embedding Chrome in a window with no decorations and a single full-window <video> tag in my favourite video player user interface?

    It's all but indistinguishable from using FFmpeg directly.

    Can I distribute the combination as my own video player based on FFmpeg and Chrome?

    Where is the line between "using Chrome" and "using Chrome discretely"? Do I have to show Chrome menu bars to avoid losing a lawsuit? Do I have to show Google's trademarks?

    If I can embed it in a window, can I change Chrome's source code to make the process more efficient? How far am I allowed to go with changing Chrome's source code?

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle