Open standards and open formats are becoming the preferred means of delivering digital documents. XML, for one, is now the darling of the enterprise: Even Microsoft has committed to an open XML format for its upcoming Office 12 suite. But whereas static, printable document formats become more and more universally open, the picture isn't so rosy for multimedia.

The BBC wants to change that. Supported by public funds, the BBC is committed to providing free and open access to audio and video media to a wide audience. But even for the largest broadcast media organization in the United Kingdom, breaking the grip of proprietary digital media standards isn't going to be easy.

Think of any popular multimedia file format and you're probably thinking of a corporate brand. RealVideo, QuickTime, Windows Media - each name is a trademark, with the inner workings of each format a closely guarded, proprietary formula. Even MP3, a name now virtually synonymous with intellectual property theft, contains intellectual property - in this case, patents held by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft .

Multimedia confusion

Not that there's any shortage of open standards in the multimedia industry. After all, standards put forth by the Moving Picture Experts Group, or MPEG for short, are found in everything from DVD movies, to videoconferencing, to MP3 audio. Yet multimedia remains a veritable minefield of patents. In fact, so many patents apply to the simple act of playing compressed video on a computer screen that it would be virtually impossible to develop any kind of multimedia application without an industry consortium such as the MPEG committee.

The way consortiums work is that the various patent holders join an industry group and agree to let their patents become part of that group's standards. In so doing, they agree to license their technologies under the blanket terms agreed on by the consortium. In the case of MPEG, that means "reasonable and nondiscriminatory" licensing terms. Anybody is free to license MPEG standards - nobody can be shut out - just as long as they pay the fees.

The obvious losers in that kind of deal are open source projects, which often are but loosely knit groups of individuals in no position to pay any kind of fee, no matter how "reasonable." But potential users of those projects lose, as well. Consider the growing number of people in the developing world who rely on open source for all their computing needs, and you'll see how patent-encumbered technologies do not pose a long-term solution for a media organization with a mission similar to the BBC's.

Dirac direct

To push past this encumbrance, the BBC took an unorthodox step: It decided to develop its own multimedia codec. Called Dirac, the new format is fully open source, supports high-resolution video, and promises a twofold increase in compression compared with current MPEG standards at the same video quality. The final release is due before the end of the year, but experimental versions are available now. The VideoLAN project, for one, has built preliminary support for Dirac into the latest version of its open source VLC multimedia player, released in late June.

How can the BBC be sure it isn't just walking into another hidden patent bomb? It can't. Especially with so much intellectual property at stake.