10 Years of DeCSS and Xvid

Many recent articles on file-trading and the P2P community have noted that the Napster phenomenon occurred ten years ago, marking a decade of joy for down-loaders and despair for the big content companies.  Less noticed is that 2009 is also the tenth anniversary of another bit of crucial P2P technology, the DeCSS decrypting tool.  Publicly fronted by the infamous Norwegian teenager “DVD Jon” Lech Johansen, DeCSS was, in some ways, even more disruptive than Napster, as it destroyed the DRM system on DVD’s, the video format that would become the most successful consumer electronics device of all time.  Because of DeCSS, the millions, eventually billions, of DVD’s would have absolutely no effective copy-protection, making them just as open to mass sharing as the completely unencrypted CD for music.

But just as Napster and its successors depended on the MP3 format in order to make music files small enough to be traded over even slow Internet connections, the video file sharing boom kicked off by DeCSS also depended on a compression format, in this case MPEG-4 ASP, or as it was more commonly called at the time, DivX.  DivX, and its open source variant Xvid, are actually not specific formats, but were video codecs designed to create MPEG-4 ASP video streams that were usually contained in an .avi file container along with MP3 encoded audio.  Nonetheless, capitalizing on the timeliness of the DeCSS + DivX solution, and the recent release of The Matrix on DVD for the first time in 1999, video file sharing took off in 1999, becoming a mass phenomenon for the first time, even if it paled in size compared to the MP3 craze started by Napster.  And of course, the release of Bittorrent in 2001 further sped up things up considerably.

I was inspired to write this bit about the history of video file-trading when I recently saw that Handbrake, the popular software video encoding application finally released a new version.  The lastest version, 0.9.4 took a year in development, and includes a number of new features and improvements, but one change in particular took me by surprise.  The latest version of Handbrake drops support for Xvid, and justifies the exclusion on the grounds that Xvid, and MPEG-4 ASP more generally, are dead and hence no longer worth investing development time into.  Over the last couple of years the “successor” to MPEG-4 ASP, officially called MPEG-4 AVC but more commonly known as h.264, has become the de facto standard for quality video online.  For years, pretty much every video file downloaded from Bittorrent, Usenet, etc. was encoded in Xvid, usually in a size that corresponded to the capacity of a CD.  For sure, many people did download the larger MPEG-2 based DVD file image, but Xvid was the king of illegally traded video.

Now, at least according to the developers of Handbrake, the usefulness of MPEG-4 ASP is over, at least on the individual user level.  And of course, any cursory examination of what’s getting traded online these days would show a massive number of files encoded by x264, the popular open source version of h.264, especially high definition video files.  Yet, there remains a very large number of Xvid encodes out there, and those files can make use of the well developed MPEG-4 ASP infrastructure of compatible devices, especially DivX Certified DVD players.  Devices that can play h.264 files downloaded from online (which usually means in a Matroska or MKV file container) are still relatively unusual, although that is likely to change in the near future.

What are your formats of choice?  Do you still download Xvid files?  Or have you switched entirely over to x264?  Or did you always stay with MPEG-2 DVD files?