Netflix Pushes Forward with HTML5 Video as the Free Software Foundation Calls for a Boycott

By Wesley Fenlon

If you want to boycott Netflix, you've got two reasons this week--improperly cropped movies, and DRM.

Movie fans are mad at Netflix, and with good reason: the blog What Netflix Does recently unveiled some pretty terrible cropping of certain films delivered through Netflix's streaming service. Thanks to the adoption of HDTVs, 4:3 fullscreen DVD releases and horrible pan-and-scan VHS tapes have been mostly replaced by original aspect ratio releases. We thought the dark days of films being poorly cropped were behind us. Turns out they're not quite so distant.

In its defense, Netflix has said that it doesn't crop movies--it just sometimes delivers the wrong version of a film. When that happens, the company makes an effort to replace its accidentally awful 4:3 version of a film with a proper version. And aspect ratio tampering does, unfortunately, still happen on home video--films originally shot at 2.39:1 are sometimes cropped to 16:9, which fits widescreen TVs with no letterboxing.

Judging by the What Netflix Does blog, those 16:9 versions are mostly what Netflix offers when it comes to poorly cropped films. Not ideal, but not terrible, either.

And it turns out that movie buffs aren't the only ones angry at Netflix this week. As the company moves ahead with plans to switch from Microsoft Silverlight to HTML5 video streaming, the Free Software Foundation is upset about the changes to HTML5 Netflix is pushing for.

"Each time a part of the Web starts requiring DRM software to decrypt it, it becomes inaccessible to free software," the Free Software Foundation wrote recently. "And if influential companies like Netflix, Google and Microsoft succeed at jamming DRM into the HTML standard, there will be even more pressure than there already is for people distributing media to encumber it with DRM. We'll see an explosion of DRM on the Web -- a growing dark zone inaccessible to free software users. This threatens to happen at a time when the state of free software-friendly media on the Web was starting to improve, with the increasing quality of free video codecs and the decline of Flash accompanied by the rise of the HTML5 video tag."

Images via What Netflix Does Tumblr

Netflix, of course, wants some DRM integrated into HTML5 to make it a viable streaming video medium for protected films. The company is currently testing HTML5 streaming to Internet Explorer 11, and open sourced some of its security code just this week. Netflix is clearly making an effort to be open about its intentions and practices on the security front, and to push forward HTML5 standards that are pretty practical.

Practicality and the noble intentions of the Free Software Foundation don't exactly mix, unfortunately, and it's understandable that the FSF doesn't like the idea of an open source standard, supported by an open source browser like FIrefox, having chunks of content protection code within it that users can't mess with. They're actually requesting a boycott of Netflix to to curtail its lobbying efforts to the World Wide Web Consortium.

With Netflix, Google and Microsoft all behind the proposed security elements becoming HTML5 standards, it's hard to see the Free Software Foundation winning. But the next year is going to be an interesting time for web video--let's just get everything available in the correct aspect ratio, okay, Netflix?