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H.264 to Remain Free for Internet Video

by Alex Blewitt on Aug 27, 2010 |

The MPEG LA, who hold the patent pool on the MPEG H.264 video format, have recently extended their pledge for free web-based video to last for the lifetime of the license.

In a Press Release (pdf) yesterday, they confirmed the continuation of the free license, which had been due to expire in December 2015.

MPEG LA announced today that its AVC Patent Portfolio License will continue not to charge royalties for Internet Video that is free to end users (known as “Internet Broadcast AVC Video”) during the entire life of this License. MPEG LA previously announced it would not charge royalties for such video through December 31, 2015 (see http://www.mpegla.com/Lists/MPEG%20LA%20News%20List/Attachments/226/n-10-02-02.pdf), and today’s announcement makes clear that royalties will continue not to be charged for such video beyond that time. Products and services other than Internet Broadcast AVC Video continue to be royalty-bearing.

The use of H.264 for commercial purposes has always been covered by a commercial license to use the technology; sites like YouTube have been broadcasting H.264 content for free across the web for some time. But it is its inclusion in hardware-decoders, such as Blu-ray players and battery-sensitive devices such as iPhones, are what are continuing to drive the commercial aspect of the licenses.

This statement has been precipitated on the on-going discussions about the differing format(s) for the video tag in HTML5. (For background, see Dive Into HTML5's look and previous InfoQ coverage here and here.) The problem meant that there is no format officially defined in the HTML5 standard, as explained by Ian Hixson on the WhatWG mailing list last year:

The current[as of June 2009] situation is as follows:
  • Apple refuses to implement Ogg Theora in Quicktime by default (as used by Safari), citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape.
  • Google has implemented H.264 and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but cannot provide the H.264 codec license to third-party distributors of Chromium, and have indicated a belief that Ogg Theora's quality-per-bit is not yet suitable for the volume handled by YouTube.
  • Opera refuses to implement H.264, citing the obscene cost of the relevant patent licenses.
  • Mozilla refuses to implement H.264, as they would not be able to obtain a license that covers their downstream distributors.
  • Microsoft has not commented on their intent to support <video> at all.

Since then, Google has acquired On2, and released their VP8 codec as WebM. (Microsoft have subsequently come out in favour of H.264.)

Browsers that had previously standardised on Theora will also be supporting WebM; however, today's announcement is unlikely to change the landscape in favour of H.264. At the moment, the license only extends to the delivery of H.264 encoded videos, over the web, for free; so pay-for videos (such as the iTunes store) will require a specific license, as will developing and distributing programs that can decode H.264. So Safari will continue to use H.264, and Google will continue to use both H.264 and WebM; but Opera and Mozilla Firefox will continue to not support H.264 encoded video.

An in-depth analysis of WebM has concluded that the specification is badly written and, at the time, postulated that there were sufficient similarities between WebM and H.264 to negate any benefit from being (apparently) patent unencumbered. An analysis of the problematic areas highlights where WebM and H.264 overlap. In building a faster WebM decoder for ffmpeg, the WebM implementation was built in just 1400 lines of code on top of the H.264 implementation already present.

This latest game of cat and mouse is not going to change the browser landscape; however, it will mean that there is no reason to stop using H.264 for freely delivered video over the internet past 2015. The patents still remain, and licensing is still required for software decoders – so the browsers will remain with their current video codecs. But the future of a patent-free video for the web is still an open question.

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Is this legally binding? by James Watson

It's one thing to make a pledge but what if the company changes it's mind? Companies are acquired or go bankrupt etc. This sounds a bit shaky.

Re: Is this legally binding? by Jim Nasium

What's to stop any company from changing it's mind after it makes an annoucement? This is pretty cut and dry; they said "We're not going to charge for this". I don't see how they could make it any more unambiguous.

Now Infoq's turn by Ashir Kuniyil

I read a thread a while back, talking about why Infoq is not converting their video content to HTML5 so it can be watched on smartphones/ipad. Fear of licensing issues with H.264 was sited as one major reason. Is now a good time Infoq team to start thinking about doing this conversion? As more and more readers are going mobile, i guess its critical to keep the reader base happy. I was surprised to see ipad friendly version of MSDN magazines available online.

Re: Is this legally binding? by James Watson

What's to stop any company from changing it's mind after it makes an annoucement?


Legally binding contracts. Hence my question.

I never suggested the statement was ambiguous. A promise has little legal meaning. Let's assume that a company can be trusted (always a bad assumption but let pretend.) If they are bought next year the company that purchases them is under no legal obligation to make good on the promise (mpegla isn't either, BTW) and can turn around and start charging exorbitant fees. In fact a company might want to purchase mpegla precisely to do so. Lastly, the only reason for mpegla not to make this a legal obligation is to leave open the possibility to renege on their promise.

Re: Now Infoq's turn by John-Paul Grabowski

Hi Ashir,

We are working on a solution that will allow our users to view InfoQ's content on mobile devices. However, we don't have a specific timeline for when that will be deployed.

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