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H.264: Free forever for free video streaming

The video encoding technology has been free to use for those sending video over the Web. MPEG LA declares it won't charge for that after 2015--or ever.

The group that licenses patents for the widely used H.264 video encoding and streaming technology has committed to charge no royalties ever for use by Web sites that use it for freely available video.

In February, the MPEG LA previously had declared free streaming wouldn't require royalty payments through December 31, 2015. On Thursday, it lifted that limit forever, a move that could remove some hesitation to use H.264, also known as AVC, on Web sites.

The move, although made earlier than the licensing group had to, isn't a major surprise. For one thing, adding a fee to streaming costs could have driven potential users into the arms of free rival video encoding technology, notably WebM from Google.

MPEG LA wouldn't get very specific about the rationale for the royalty change. "This is a decision of the patent holders based on their general sense that this clarification is beneficial to the market in responding to its demand for AVC deployment," the group said in a statement.

In any event, it's likely the video landscape will look different five years from now. It's an active area of research, and by 2015, it's likely there will be new codec alternatives that offer more advanced encoding and decoding abilities. That could mean smaller file sizes, a lower processing burden, or reduced network throughput needs.

MPEG LA continues to charge royalties for use in other areas, including Blu-ray drives and disc reproduction, broadcast television, cameras, and video-editing software.

Updated 2:18 p.m. PDT to add MPEG LA commentary.