Mayhem at the Jefferson Memorial

There are some law enforcement agencies I just don’t expect to be seen in a bad PR light, that I honestly would trust to do a decent job. And the US Park Police was on that list. I emphasize was, because I watched this YouTube video:

A report at has a bit more information on exactly what’s going on here, and some of the background information. Some of the other stories about this mention an Adam Kokesh as one of the protesters. Most disturbing are these two facts, quoted from the WTOP story, taken together:

The officers remain on regular duty during the investigation, said Schlosser.


The videos [of the incident] show protesters being forcefully restrained, and in at least one case driven to the ground.

But there’s more to it than the usual First Amendment and police brutality issues: starting at 2:16 in the video one of the officers confronts the camera man taking this video and tells him “you’re not allowed to video record in here” and “if you continue to record you will be arrested.” It’s suspicious that it would suddenly become not allowed to record video in the face of a police brutality incident. The cops had to walk past several people taking video to make these arrests; it was not like some of the video cameras were exactly small (one was huge, of the size I’d expect an ENG camera rig to be). And obviously, someone holding a flip phone with the back of the phone aimed at the action is not looking for how many bars of signal they get inside the memorial.

Why are these officers still on their regular beat after this, when it’s documented on video that they exhibited needless brutality?

It’s time for the US Park Police to clean up their act. And I don’t mean litter patrol.

Additionally, I find it ironic I’m writing this on Memorial Day. I am grateful for the job our soldiers do, and I hope their efforts in defending our country and our freedoms was not in vain.

[Edit 2023-08-13: Modernize YouTube link]

H.264 licensing revisited and explored

I’ve got a backlog of stuff here, so some of these might be a bit short.

First up, revisiting video codec patents, which I originally wrote about in February.

A recent post on was also written after Ben Schwartz’s post “No, you can’t do that with H.264” as mine was. From the article:

In the interest of clarifying the ambiguous claims regarding the licensing terms of using the AVC/H.264 video technology, Libre Video has taken the time over the past few weeks to contact the MPEG-LA directly, the licensing authority responsible for administering the patent pool for the H.264 specification. We have asked them various questions related to what we feel are important issues surrounding the terms under which normal people are permitted to use hardware products that they have purchased and the resulting multimedia content created with them.

Obviously, there is way too much to quote here, but the important conclusions to draw from Libre Video’s correspondence with MPEG-LA are:

  1. The simplicity of the analog media era where one buys, say, a VHS tape deck and can pretty much do what one wishes with it are over. Software patents turn what should be simple tasks into a legal minefield ready to explode under those that least expect legal obstacles.
  2. Even professional products do not include a professional H.264 license. This includes, say, Final Cut Pro.
  3. The AVC licensing only applies to an end product, and can be avoided by transcoding the video to, say, Ogg Theora or the upcoming VP8/WebM.
  4. The patent licenses required to legally decode H.264 make it impossible to write a free software (GPL) H.264 decoder. This is most unfortunate on the part of MPEG-LA and the companies that have chosen to embrace this standard.

I’m disappointed in MPEG-LA and the companies which formed it. This is perhaps the biggest step backward for user freedoms since the DMCA; many otherwise law-abiding free software users will wind up breaking the law just to convert their H.264 video to formats like Ogg Theora.

I propose the following solution:

  1. For personal use/non-profit videos, MPEG-LA waives the royalties on software-based decoding of H.264 for the purposes of conversion to another video format.
  2. Apple, Microsoft, and other developers voluntarily rename video editing products with the word “Pro” or “Professional” in the name (such as Final Cut Pro) to a new name not including the words “professional” or “pro” and putting a prominent disclaimer on the box: “The H.264 decoder and encoder are licensed for personal use only. Use of the H.264 video format allowed by this software product may require additional licenses from the MPEG Licensing Authority (MPEG-LA).”

These are the fair things to do. The first would make the H.264 decoder in ffmpeg legal for most of its uses. Maybe MPEG-LA would need to raise their royalties to compensate for “lost” revenue. I have news for MPEG-LA: many of the users of ffmpeg would never pay you one red cent anyway. A few are effective scofflaws, but most are easily convinced that having to break the law to convert their home movies to another digital video format without paying even more money is at best ludicrous and at worst insane.

The second just makes sense. This, of course, is exactly why the companies in question will never do it. But that’s another rant for another day.

Cops vs. citizens with recorders: who wins?

A recent Gizmodo post discusses videos depicting police abuse and what is a dubious at best reaction from law enforcement. Specifically, some states are now making it illegal to record or photograph an on-duty law enforcement officer. From the article:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The most alarming example comes from Christopher Drew, who recorded his own
arrest for selling $1 artwork on the streets of Chicago. The charges of
peddling in a prohibited area and not having a peddler’s license were dropped;
instead, Christopher is being prosecuted for eavesdropping, a class I felony.

Christopher documents his experience with some very pointed commmentary in this blog entry which includes a quote from Robert Lederman’s instructions to artists in New York City about documenting everything. Christopher also delivers this white-hot flame against the sad state of affairs in Illinois with regard to the eavesdropping law, which I quote in part (and agree with completely):

If you are a corrupt public official or a person involved in corruption its in your favor to have an eavesdropping law that prevents anyone from recording anything in public without the fear of a felony. A corrupt person feels more comfortable in a state like that. Unfortunately, its possible for a lot of honest people to end up felons while the real felons walk free. That’s why I ask – what is the state of our police in this state we are in?

Christoper’s experience is a huge blemish against the reputation of the city of Chicago as friendly to artists and those who express themselves. A blemish that a city of that size cannot afford.

Radley Balko wrote an editorial about Christopher’s rejected motion to dismiss the case, which asks many pointed questions, and also points out the history of the Illinois eavesdropping law, which originally had an expectation of privacy exception, but has not since 1994. Quoting Radley’s article:

Here’s where it gets even worse: Originally, the Illinois eavesdropping law did also include a similar expectation of privacy provision. But the legislature stripped that provision out in 1994, and they did so in response to an incident in which a citizen recorded his interaction with two on-duty police officers. In other words, the Illinois legislature specifically intended to make it a Class I felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, to make an audio recording of an on-duty police officer without his permission.

The fact that this came about in response to an incident involving a conversation with two on-duty cops should say everything about the intent of the state legislature. This already-bad law, of course, has not gotten better with age; in fact technology and the ubiquity of small devices capable of recording audio and video has made this bad law even worse.

So is it always risking arrest to record an on-duty cop in those states? Well, not really, as quoting from the Gizmodo article:

In short, recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.

This kind of law, combined with blatant selective enforcement, is entirely out of place in free society, and a mockery of the standards by which decent people live. Indeed, I believe the criticism and challenge of unjust laws to be an essential part of a free society. I’ve used this quote from the FSF before, but it applies yet again:

The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.

Indeed, the abuse of eavesdropping and wiretapping laws is another example of how those charged with enforcing the law often view themselves as above the law. It’s in the same general category as cops conveniently disregarding stop signs, traffic lights, speed limits, prohibited turn signs, etc at their convenience (when not responding to a bona fide emergency, and I specifically exclude the donut shop closing for the night in five minutes from the definition of such an emergency). Indeed, it’s incredibly convenient that getting video of these types of reckless acts by those sworn to serve and protect is risky business in some places, yet one could easily take all the video one wants of, say, a cop hugging his daughters.

I’d expect the kind of insanity in certain other countries: UK, Germany, France, maybe even Mexico or Canada. But the United States of America was founded on freedom from tyranny, and it is in the direction of tyranny that these laws take us. This egregious trampling of the First Amendment cannot continue unchallenged, lest those who fought to acquire and maintain that freedom and others are to have ultimately done so in vain.

Finally, I encourage everyone to support Christoper Drew’s legal defense, either financially or just by raising awareness of this serious issue. This is wrong and the real criminals here are the ethically bankrupt Chicago police and prosecuting attorneys. I’ll post more details on exactly what Christopher needs as I get them.

Submarine software licenses: the “gotcha” of video codecs

Ben Schwartz wrote a very nice piece about proprietary video codecs, in particular H.264, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4. In essence, those who have purchased software like Final Cut Pro with the idea of using it to make commercial video have fallen into either a carefully laid trap by the patent holders or a simple oversight on the part of companies like Apple who bury things like this well within the fine print.

Ben’s commentary below the relevant license portions says it all:

Noticing a pattern? You have a license to use their software, provided you don’t make any money, your friends are also all correctly licensed, and you only produce content that complies with the MPEG standard. Using video for a commercial purpose? Producing video that isn’t within MPEG’s parameters? Have friends who use unlicensed encoders like x264, ffmpeg, or xvid? Too bad.

But it gets even more troubling for free software users (Ben here uses the term “open-source” but it applies equally):

This last thing is actually a particularly interesting point. If you encode a video using one of these (open-source) unlicensed encoders, you’re practicing patents without a license, and you can be sued. But hey, maybe you’re just a scofflaw. After all, it’s not like you’re making trouble for anyone else, right? Wrong. If you send a video to a friend who uses a licensed decoder, and they watch it, you’ve caused them to violate their own software license, so they can be sued too.

This is probably one of the strongest cases against software patents I have come across. Thankfully the EU rejected software patents as of last time I checked, and hopefully will continue to do so. The US seems to be the only place where one can patent a computer program, clearly outside the scope of what patents were intended for.

Patents should be restricted to physical inventions. It’s absurd to be able to patent not just a computer program, but an entire class of computer programs which do the same thing.

To be fair about it, those who hold the patents have a strong disincentive from chasing down everyone who infringes on the patent. In addition to being cost-prohibitive, it is an almost certain PR disaster. This does not excuse what amounts to legalized extortion.

The problem runs even deeper than “just don’t use H.264 or other patented codecs.” The rather low level adoption of patent-free codecs like Theora and Vorbis in consumer electronics equipment often makes the idea a no-go. Most digital audio and video players will not play Theora or Vorbis files. (Vorbis was designed as an MP3 replacement.)

Making a DVD or Blu-Ray disc that plays in most off-the-shelf players simply cannot be done without infringing upon the patents. Troubling here is that the Blu-Ray standard (and not that it matters now, but HD DVD as well) easily could have been written to allow the use of Theora or even Dirac. The decision to not standardize on a patent-free codec was almost certainly driven by greed; the same corporations which make the devices get most of the patent royalties on H.264, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, etc.

TNT: We don’t know multi-platform

I recently read an article in Jeff Balke’s blog about TNT’s online video. In a world increasingly moving away from a “one size fits all” model with regard to computer operating systems (not that such a model ever really applied to begin with), it is absurd to think that everyone will be running any given operating system.

Especially when that operating system is Microsoft Windows. TNT, you dropped the ball big time. This is 2009, not 1989 or 1994.

I’m sure someone will hack around what I’m sure is an absolutely blockheaded browser- or OS-sniffing script. My point is, however, we should not have to.