H.264 Now Free Forever... For End Users

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H.264 Now Free Forever... For End Users

· Web Dev Zone ·
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Today MPEG LA announced that the H.264 patent holders will permanently waive licensing fees to use the codec in free web streaming services.  The final patents on the H.264 video codec are scheduled to expire in 2028, and MPEG LA seems to have made a clear agreement that it will not charge royalties on those patents for the remaining years of the codec's encumbrance.  Is the pressure from Google's WebM initiative responsible for this recent action?

At Google I/O this year, Google announced its intentions to open source the VP8 video codec from On2 Technologies, a company they had recently acquired.  VP8 is now 100% open source and royalty free (even for commercial uses), along with the other components of WebM.  Creating a high-performing video codec that wasn't patent-encumbered was a major goal for Google, who wanted a new standard codec for HTML5 video.  HTML5 had two options for video codecs when using the <video> tag: H.264 (not fully royalty-free) and Ogg Theora (under performing).  Google said that its mission would be to make WebM the new standard for delivering video over the web.  

The announcement caused a backlash from MPEG LA, who's CEO believes that virtually every video codec falls under some of their patents.  The CEO went on record in late May 2010 saying that MPEG LA was going to assemble a patent pool against VP8.  Three months later, we still haven't seen any legal action against Google and VP8.   One developer who works on the H.264 libraries also believes that VP8 is very similar to H.264.  He adds that H.264 has much better performance.  

If that's true, then today's news is great for people who want to post high quality video for free.  It's also great that videos can be encoded in VP8 and distributed for commercial at no cost.  What's important is that people now have a choice.  The most worrisome aspect of H.264 was the incremental pace at which MPEG LA would waive royalties.  For example, MPEG LA announced in February that H.264 would be royalty-free for free video until the end of 2015.  The great fear was that MPEG LA would spring royalties back on the free video posters in 2015 and milk the license fees until 2028.  Now it seems like we can put those fears to rest.

However, the announcement means nothing for browser-makers like Firefox and Opera, who can't afford the licenses to decode H.264 in their browser.  Mozilla says that the next codec, H.265, will probably make H.264 obsolete in 4 years anyway.

In other related news, Nero AG filed a lawsuit in May against MPEG LA on antitrust charges.

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