DivX, which has no relation to the failed Circuit City DVD player, has spread quickly in underground computer circles as a way to create and send extremely high-quality video files online. While no DivX programmers have been sued, the technology has featured prominently in other antipiracy cases brought by the movie industry.
Since the release of that technology, the programmers behind DivX have been working on a new version dubbed "DivX Deux," which they promise will be more powerful. That's not here yet, but they've decided to throw open their code to other developers on the Net as a way to push the project along.
"We've reached the point where we're comfortable opening it up to other developers," said Joe Bezdek, director of product definition for Project Mayo, the company created by the DivX project founders. "The goal with Open DivX is to achieve ubiquity on a wide variety of platforms and a wide variety of devices."
The Project Mayo programmers have ambitions well beyond their roots in hacker world. Bezdek said the developers hope to see companies and video creators use the freely licensed DivX technology instead of similar technologies by Microsoft or other companies. In the music world, open-source programmers are creating a new music format with ambitions similar to those Bezdek has for DivX.
But given the technology's history as a way of swapping copyrighted files online, Project Mayo's ambitions of ubiquity aren't necessarily good news for the film industry.
Building a better pirate?
DivX has been touted by some as the technology that could do for video online what MP3 did for music.
The technology itself doesn't allow hackers to break through the anti-copying protections on DVDs. But used in conjunction with technologies that do facilitate this, DivX allows full movies to be transmitted relatively quickly online and stored on a single CD. The compressed files retain the quality of a good VCR picture or better.
The DivX code is based on the MPEG-4 video standard, a successor to the technology that gave the world the popular MP3 audio format. Several companies, including Microsoft, have created their own versions of MPEG-4 technologies.
Bezdek said that Project Mayo owns the copyrights to all of its code, refuting early Net rumors that DivX was a hacked version of Microsoft's technology.
The copyrights to the code are a very different thing than intellectual property to the underlying technology, however. The MPEG-4 standard contains technology copyrighted by an assortment of companies, and so anyone who uses the Open DivX code for business purposes could be walking into a patent minefield.
"The video technology space is thoroughly covered by patents, many of which overlap or conflict," the Project Mayo site says. "As a consequence, it is unlikely that any video technology will be created any time soon that is wholly 'free'...Use of the core code in hardware or software products might infringe on existing patents and is done at your own risk."
The film industry isn't commenting on the open-source project, but warns that its enforcement branch will pursue anyone who uses the technology to distribute copyrighted material.
"As technology gets better, our concerns get greater," said Hemanshu Nigam, the Motion Picture Association of America's new director of Internet enforcement. "When a technology gets better, uses of it get more diversified and more prevalent."