April 3, 2008

Open Media Now launched to boost digital freedom

Author: Bruce Byfield

Already known for its development of a free Flash player, the Gnash project is now the nucleus of a much larger effort. Called the Open Media Now Foundation (OMNF), the group's goal is to encourage the development "of an open media infrastructure," according its home page. Registered as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization in the United States, the new organization is actively seeking corporate members, although it accepts donations from individuals as well.

Explaining the reason for the new foundation, Rob Savoye, lead Gnash developer and CTO at OMNF, says, "We're not going to get the sort of digital freedom that we all need unless we make it all happen. We've found with the Gnash project that a handful of developers cold make slow but steady progress. But we thought that if we could scale up our resources in a sensible manner, we could accomplish a lot more."

For now, the foundation's main focus will be on developing the software needed for an open media structure. "We have our sights on other things in the long, long run," says executive director Lauren Riggin, a long-time public policy activist. "But right now we're focused on the tools that make the vision happen." To that end, one of the pages on the foundation's site is devoted to the priorities for Gnash and Cygnal, the first projects to join the foundation.

Savoye suggests that OMNF will initially have more in common with organizations such as the GNOME Foundation rather than more issue-oriented organizations such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF). "I know it sounds funny," he says, "but sometimes the best way to protect freedom is by writing code. We're trying to accomplish the same things [as groups like the FSF], but we're doing it through different means."

Initial resources

The new foundation's goal is to formalize the loose set of associations that Gnash has been become a part of over the years, which include free software projects such as Miro Player, Edubuntu, and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) as well as larger activist organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation whose interests overlap with Gnash's.

All these projects share the common experience of being "heavily under-funded, if funded at all," Savoye says. He hopes that, through the new foundation, all of them can accelerate their development or advance their own advocacy work.

Savoye says that while free software for digital media is making advances on all sorts of fronts, "There's not really a complete system that hangs all together yet. We have all the beginning pieces of the technology that we need, but the trick now is to evolve them into a more grand infrastructure."

The Foundation's officers hope to benefit from the attention paid to Gnash by companies focused on educational and embedded products, as well as manufacturers who use non-Intel processors, who have never had a choice of Flash players because neither Adobe nor Macromedia, the previous owner of Flash, ever developed for their platforms. "But without the Foundation, we really didn't have a way to take funding from these people," Savoye says.

OMNG's use of Gnash connections is also visible in its board of directors. Bob Young, the founder of Red Hat and free content provider Lulu Enterprises, who has funded Gnash development in the last few years, is on the board, as well as free software activist and entrepreneur John Gilmore, who was one of the founders of both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Cygnus Solutions. Although both Young and Gilmore are funding OMNF's initial efforts, Savoye says the organization must find additional income if the foundation is going to grow.

The foundation is still developing plans to encourage participation by projects, companies, and entrepreneurs, but the main strategy appears to be to attract them through common interests. Rather than the foundation launching a targeted campaign to attract members, "the technology is the campaign," says director of business relations MaryBeth Panagos, a former Internet radio station broadcaster and OLPC contributor. She says that the fact that the foundation's development efforts will be cross-platform should help encourage investment. Eventually, the foundation organizers hope that members will form an advisory council to help determine future directions.

All code from foundation-supported projects will have copyright assigned to the FSF, most likely under the third version of the GNU General Public License. "I've been developing GNU software for 20 years," Savoye says, "and donating my copyright to the FSF is what I've always done. I like the idea of knowing that if we donate Gnash to the FSF, it will stay free forever."

Future plans

For now, coding and fund-raising will be OMNF's chief concerns. However, in the long run, the foundation executive also hopes the organization will be in the position to expand its efforts.

One area that the foundation would like to expand into is funding other projects. "If we succeed in figuring out how to raise sufficient money, it's an important part of our responsibility to help the other small groups doing much the same things," Savoye says. "I know that many of these people are supported out of their own pockets, so, if we have the resources, I would like to help them."

Possibly, too, the foundation may need to fund other projects to realize its visions. For instance, Savoye suggests that a long-term goal may be the development of a free Flash media server, complete with videoconferencing capabilities.

The executive acknowledges that, sooner or later, coding efforts will undoubtedly force the foundation into a more activist role. Any free media efforts are going to run up against the problem of using proprietary codecs like MP3, and Savoye avows that the encouragement of free formats is essential. "We're all going to keep playing catch-up with the proprietary stuff unless we can create a body of audio and visual free formats," he says. "So we're talking a lot about getting into more campaigns."

In the immediate future, however, the foundation's efforts are likely to be restricted to a free media conference, perhaps in the fall -- although it, like the rest of the foundation's plans, is dependent on funding.

The new foundation has large goals, but OMNF's executives are optimistic about implementing them. Panagos points out that "a lot of community support" exists that the foundation can hope to draw upon.

Similarly, Riggin says, "There are a lot of companies and product manufacturers out there that stand to gain a lot from this technology and who have, one way or the other, voiced their wish that this was available yesterday. But we need the resources to do that. We have a ways to go with this technology -- we never claimed that we are there yet. But the point of the foundation is to harness those resources out there to help us get there sooner rather than later."


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