Codecs Research

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First Draft of Report

Second Version of Report - Released

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Third Version of Report - Live for Changes

Research Initiative into FOSS Codecs, Transcoding and Playback Applications

During the Transmission meeting in Rome there was a shared desire by groups present to support free and open source video codecs. The Transmission meeting itself was called on the basis of a commitment to utilising FOSS tools. Beyond any ethical motivations most groups within the network cannot afford proprietary tools and additionally open source development practices, especially when orientated towards an active network, can facilitate the rapid development of software for members of that network. Whilst many groups have a commitment to making their Content Management Systems and documentation freely available, most employ or promote proprietary video codecs such as Flash, Quicktime and Windows Media amongst others. These formats are often entangled in a range of patents and copyrights that limit their use and future development.

Additionally the popularity of these codecs is not necessarily based on their superiority to their FOSS counter parts. Free codecs such as Ogg Theora are highly competitive as regards image quality and file size, however Ogg is generally difficult both to encode and for viewers to play back. For codecs such as Ogg Theora to be taken up widely by social justice online video distribution groups then serious work needs to be undertaken to make them easy to use and adopt.

Currently encoding to open source codecs is not a priority for propriatary tools and few FOSS GUIs allow you to encode to Ogg Theora. Some open source editing tools such as Kino will export to Ogg Theora but few serious video makers use such systems. Additionally most video makers generally use Windows and Macintosh so for such codecs to be taken up seriously it must be compatible with these operating systems. Presently the most common method is to use a command line application called ffmpeg2theora. Using this application on a command line is near impossible for most video makers.

There are of course other open source options apart from Ogg Theora, and part of this project would include surveying what the various options currently are. There are several open source Flash applications that may provide additional alternatives, though Flash is itself a proprietary format.

From the viewer’s perspective these open source formats must also be easily playable. To play an open source format it is required that the appropriate codec be installed on your computer. Quite often people do not have these codecs and as a result video makers will regularly fall back to the propretary options to ensure that as many people as possible can view their video.

Most FOSS video codecs are playable in desktop applications such as Video Lan Client. However playing such videos embedded within the webpage, as is now extremely common, is quite a different process, one that is still in development and requires a thorough survey to assess how it could be successfully implemented.

One proposal to facilitate the implementation of a common FOSS codec across was to develop an application to auto-transcode the video to the desired format, much like Google Video or YouTube? does with Flash. This application could be either server-side or client-side, freeing video producers from having to master the use of complex encoding applications in order to distribute their videos on the web using FOSS codecs. Helping video makers overcome these barriers is fundamental to making online video distribution accessible – this has been proved in the commercial realm and is just as true within our community.

One significant option is the use of Cortado, a Java applet that allows for the play back of Ogg Theora within the browser. Anyone who has Java on their computer (now relatiely common) would be able to watch video streams in Theora. This player still however needs significant development to make it a viable alternative to Flash video. Research is needed into who is using it, how it is being used, how it might be improved and implemented more widely for social justice online video projects. We believe that with the collective momentum of a network of social change video projects we can promote the wide uptake of such open source options. If they prove viable.


EngageMedia is leading a research project into how social change online video distribution projects could most effectively take up and support FOSS codecs. We believe a research project is a necessary first step to understand what options are available and how they might be implemented.

Such research would cover:


What FOSS codecs are currently available and how do they compare?


What is needed within the most popular systems to enable the upload and playback of FOSS codecs?


What would be required within various systems to implement cortado player or another embedded FOSS streaming video solution?


Survey the possiblities for open source flash server-side transcoding and embedding on the webpage.


The possibility of creating server side auto-transcoding applications to take the onus off video producers to encode to these formats.


Research into the development of a desktop transcoder/uploader application that could work locally to encode the file and then upload it to a specified site.


What desktop tools currently exist that support encoding to open source codecs? What would be needed to implement it into current FOSS transcoding applications such as Media Coder, ffmpegx, Virtual Dub and Gtranscode.


The practicality of creating a GUI for ffmpeg2theora


The research will be comprised of two distinct areas. One is through the traditional gathering, analysis and filtering of materials. The other is through the testing and experimenting with code to provide a clearer picture of what is practical and viable and what is not.

EngageMedia aims to consult with the Transmission network in developing this report and to collaborate with other key organisations. The draft findings of this research project will be compiled into a report for circulation in the Transmission network and to other related networks and organisations. Network feedback will be incorporated into the final report and recommendations.

The research will take three months to complete.


A report and set of recommendations as to how to realise the uptake and implementation of FOSS codecs.

Draft recommendations can be found here:


The core outcome of this report will be a set of recommendations to promote the implementation of FOSS video codecs within online video distribution projects working for social change.

Research findings will be posted to EngageMedia's internal wiki and web development tracker, to a codecs email list on Transmission and to this wiki here:

From here research findings will be split into the different areas covered in Scope, above (see links).


Other groups and individuals are encouraged to particpate in this research here:

Email List

Please join this list to participate in discussions around this research project: