Reverse engineering could threaten RealNetworks, others

Efforts to provide open source alternatives to streaming media products are cropping up from groups ranging from lone university students to Internet behemoth CMGI.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
While RealNetworks, Microsoft and other corporations battle for control of the streaming media market, efforts to provide open source alternatives to streaming media products are cropping up from groups ranging from lone university students to Internet behemoth CMGI.

The products, largely developed under open source rules that make the end product available for use under a free, public license, have the potential to throw a monkey wrench into corporate streaming plans much the way the open source Linux platform has threatened Microsoft's grip on the market for computer operating systems.

Groups working on free versions of streaming media products like those for sale by RealNetworks and others include Free-expression.org, Xiph.org and Icecast, which was acquired by CMGI last month.

These programmers defend their efforts as ways to break a corporate stranglehold on Internet media.

"We're assuming people want to be able to create their own audio and video expression without being obligated to any particular organization," said Lynn Winebarger, a graduate student in math and computer science at Indiana University who is the driving force behind Free-expression.org. "That's what we're planning on providing. That's what a general public license is all about. It takes away the power of one individual or company to govern what happens with that code."

Free-expression.org's goals are to provide a full battery of streaming media tools, including the server, the client and codecs, which are used to encode, decode, compress and decompress data. Winebarger's objective is to make the product function with all media formats, including Microsoft's and RealNetworks'.

"What I want to do is create a more comprehensive system where you don't really have a split between server, client and encoder," Winebarger said. "It would be one interactive system where you can load any of those pieces and put them together with a scripting language."

Winebarger, who launched Free-expression.org last spring, is still at work on a decompiler to unravel RealNetworks' software and begin the process of reverse engineering it. This tactic, which treads on uncertain legal ground, may have dissuaded other developers from signing on to his cause.

"I think we scared people off with the fact that I'm perfectly willing to be sued by RealNetworks if that's what it takes to defend my civil liberties," he said. Citing his advantage as a student with few assets, he said he is unafraid of such a lawsuit. "Suing me is like trying to get blood from a turnip. But other developers with more resources are reluctant to get involved."

RealNetworks did not return phone calls requesting comment.

When properly executed, reverse engineering allows hardware and software developers to replicate existing products without running afoul of intellectual property laws. The practice most famously goes back to Compaq's successful cloning of IBM's personal computing technology in the early 1980s, which blew open the doors to competition in the desktop PC market.

Although reverse engineering is legal, developers must meet strict requirements to show they did not directly copy the works in question, but that they independently created the code from general specifications distilled from the original work.

Reverse engineering does not allow replication of patented works, however. According to a recent SEC filing, RealNetworks has nine patents relating to its streaming and other technologies, with another 11 patent applications pending.

Further along toward its goals, but also wary of legal consequences, is Icecast, founded in January 1999 with the goal of providing an open source audio streaming server. Icecast plays MP3 content; its component LiveIce converts that content into streaming audio.

The project began as a free, open source version of the Shoutcast server, an MP3 streaming server now owned by America Online.

"There might be some legal argument that Icecast copied the (Shoutcast) protocol," wrote Scott Manley, an early participant in the project, in an email interview. "But I don't imagine that would be worth pursuing. And...it could be argued that I was doing this first."

Manley said that patents pose the biggest hurdle for open source streaming projects.

"Free streaming has big problems with patents," wrote Manley. "MP3 encoders are supposed to be licensed for significant amounts of money. This is the reason why LiveIce doesn't have an encoder distributed with the package."

Should Icecast run into any legal problems, it will have vast corporate resources with which to defend itself. Last month, Icecast sponsor The Green Witch Internet Radio was acquired by Internet investor CMGI.

A third open source Internet media effort is underway at Xiphophorus, or Xiph.org. This group of programmers is at work on various multimedia and signal processing projects, with the goal of protecting "the foundations of Internet multimedia from domination by self-serving corporate interests...(and) essential tenets of Internet multimedia from corporate hostage-taking," according to the organization's Web site.

Xiph.org's open source projects, which fall under its OggSquish initiative, highlight Ogg Vorbis, a "patent-clear, fully open general-purpose audio encoding format standard that rivals or surpasses the 'upcoming' generation of proprietary coders (AAC and TwinVQ, also known as VQF)."

Another company with an open source streaming media offering is Apple Computer, which opened part of its QuickTime Streaming software in April of last year.