Wikimedia mulls support for 'patent-encumbered' video file format

Wikimedia said its support for open formats has put limits on the number of videos in its repository

Wikimedia, the foundation that hosts Wikipedia and other sites, is considering supporting the MP4 video file format on its projects, because it finds that the current open formats it supports limit the number of videos and the ability to view them on mobile phones.

The foundation has asked community members for comments on the decision as MP4 is a proprietary format that involves patents and licenses, and its use would be a break from current Wikimedia practice of only using open formats on its sites, Wikimedia said.

Only 38,000 video files have been uploaded so far to the Wikimedia Commons database of media files, a paltry 0.2 percent of the 19 million other media files in the Wikimedia repository, which does not let the sites take benefit of video as a learning tool, particularly for people who can't read well, according to Wikimedia.

One of the reasons is that widely-available video cameras, including those on mobile phones, do not record using the open formats - Ogg Theora and WebM - supported by Wikimedia.

"Once video is recorded in other formats, special tools like Firefogg are required to re-encode them in open formats, special plugins are required to edit them, and these tools and plugins are not widely used in the video creation and editing community," according to a request for comments from Wikimedia.

Videos created using the two open standards cannot be viewed on over two-thirds of mobile phones that use Wikimedia websites, and most videos recorded on mobile devices cannot be directly uploaded to the sites. Mobile viewers accounted for 33 percent of the page views on Wikimedia sites last month.

Noting that MP4, also known as MPEG-4 Part 14, is the most common digital video format on desktop computers and mobile devices, and is also supported by popular websites like YouTube and web playback systems such as Adobe Flash and popular consumer electronics hardware, Wikimedia said that supporting the MP4 video standard would make it easier for users to view and contribute video on Wikimedia projects.

The MP4 format typically includes the MP4 container, the H.264 video codec and the AAC audio codec, which would require the foundation to get licenses for their use from MPEG-LA and Via Licensing, Wikimedia said. MPEG-LA has said previously that it will not charge royalties for the H.264 codec for Internet video that is free to end users, for the life of the license.

Videos will be converted and stored in both open and MP4 formats on Wikimedia sites, as soon as they are uploaded or viewed by users. Files that are currently in WebM or Ogg Theora will be encoded by the foundation's servers, then displayed on a mobile device or desktop browser that only supports MP4 viewing. Users opposed to software patents can still play, edit, and upload videos from Wikimedia in open formats, using open source software like Firefox, Chrome and Android, Wikimedia said.

Comments have to be submitted by users by Feb. 14.

The move by Wikimedia has been opposed so far by some members who said that supporting a proprietary format would run contrary to the foundation's values.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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