Friday, July 20, 2007

Peace, love, and progress, but not free content

Recently, Erik Moeller proposed that the Commons should allow Flash playback of Wikimedia Commons content. This proposal, which appears to have come out of a meeting Erik had with some Mozilla and archive.org bigwigs, is typical of Erik's proposals: it compromises the foundational principles of Wikimedia in exchange for increasing the number of organizations with which Erik has influence. In this case, it would create a relationship between Erik and archive.org (because Wikimedia would discontinue hosting video media on Commons in favor of hosting it at archive.org) that would tend to increase Erik's apparent importance in the free content universe. However, the proposal also completely ignores that Flash is not a free content medium: Flash is encumbered by multiple patents (at least one of which, the MP3 patent, makes it simply illegal for the Commons to distribute the content without acquiring an expensive license).

Greg Maxwell has already written a very good response to Erik's proposal. There has been in place, for quite some time now, a Java-based, fully free Ogg Theora player for Wikimedia content, which has been used quite a lot by Wikipedia readers. This mechanism was implemented by Greg using the toolserver and is well-accepted with a successful penetration level approaching, if not exceeding, that of the Flash solution that Erik is backing, while at the same time not relying on any patent-encumbered technologies. Greg also points out that moving Wikimedia content to archive.org and depending on them breaks Wikimedia as a standalone solution. Collaboration is one thing; dependency is quite another.

The main problem here is that Erik is once again pursuing his personal interests instead of the Foundation's interests. The Foundation's interest is in gathering free content. In order to be free, the content must not be encumbered by copyright, but it must also not be encumbered by restrictive encoding patents. MP3s are not permitted on Wikimedia because the MP3 format is not free (and also because the Wikimedia Foundation does not have the required license to distribute MP3s). The same situation exists with Flash (in fact, entirely, because Flash 8 only supports MP3 audio, which means distributing Flash 8 content requires an MP3 distributor's license). However, Erik's interest here has nothing to do with free content. It has to do with building Erik's power network. If Erik is successful in this proposal, he will have established a connection between himself, and at the very least, Brewster Kahle's archive.org, which is widely regarded as an important player in the free content universe. And that's what Erik wants here: to be more important in the free content universe. I don't think Erik really cares that much about free content by itself; he is just using it as a vehicle to make himself important.

Don't get me wrong: I like Brewster and I like what he's doing with archive.org, but they're not about free content. They're simply about content. Archive.org basically ignores copyright and patent law entirely, following them only when forced to by lawyers. That's fine, that's how they work, and I'm not bothered by that. But what they do doesn't support free content; in some ways it actually diminishes it (why create free content when equivalent nonfree content is available from archive.org?). Their interests are not Wikimedia's interests, although there are certainly common areas. The possibility for synergies may well exist, but this particular issue isn't one of them.

It's interesting that when Greg presented Erik with actual data regarding the use of the existing solution, Erik rejects it and demands a pointless and intrusive survey instead, and furthermore declares that the existing solution is worthless if a majority of Africans are unable to view the video with the current solution. It's quite clear that Erik is grasping at straws to save his idea, instead of accepting that his proposal lacks merit. If he was a sensible person, he would simply admit that his idea doesn't stand up after examination of the facts. But he doesn't, and he won't, because that doesn't suit his real purpose here, which is to advance his own importance, at whatever cost.

In short, Erik is once again proposing to compromise Wikimedia's principles for his own personal glory, to solve a problem that does not exist. How predictably Erik.

Update: See Erik mercilessly attack Greg here.