Web video gets H.264 royalty reprieve

The group that licenses the widely used H.264 video compression technology decides against adding a Web-streaming royalty charge that could have helped rival formats such as Ogg Theora.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

In a decision that deprives open-source foes of some rhetorical fodder, the group that licenses patents for the widely used H.264 video-encoding technology chose to renew a streaming-media freebie through 2015.

MPEG LA licenses more than 1,000 H.264-related patents on behalf of 26 companies that hold the patents. The group's existing policy, which runs through the end of 2010, has been not to charge royalties to Internet sites that streamed video using the technology--as long as the video was free for viewers.

Many have been waiting to hear what MPEG LA would announce for the licensing terms beyond 2010. On Tuesday, the group said it extended the free-streaming policy until December 31, 2015.

That extension could help encourage Web sites to use it instead of rivals such as Ogg Theora, which isn't encumbered by patents, or On2 Technologies' VP7 or VP8.

H.264, Ogg Theora, and VP8 are what's called codecs--technology that encodes and decodes digital information. In the case of digital video, codecs compress the original material for storage or transmission, then expand it again for viewing. The highest-profile Web streaming site using H.264 is a doozy: Google's YouTube.

H.264 opposition
Given some significant opposition to H.264 in Web streaming that contrasts with its widespread use, it's not too surprising MPEG LA chose not to add the new royalty.

Google is trying to acquire On2 but hasn't disclosed in detail what it hopes to accomplish beyond saying, "We believe high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform."

But the more overt rival at this stage is Mozilla, which has been agitating against H.264 and promoting Ogg Theora, which it uses for handling video built into Web sites with new HTML5 technology under development. Mozilla had been raising the specter of new streaming video royalty payments, but the MPEG LA decision defangs that argument for the time being.

Still, the rhetoric continued Wednesday, when Mozilla Chief Executive John Lilly tweeted, "Regarding that MPEG LA announce: it's good they did it, but they sort of had to. But it's like 5 more years of free to lock you in 4ever."

Why so opposed? Patents on Web plumbing raise a big red flag for those who remember when Unisys started seeking licensing revenue for the GIF format based on its image compression patents. The didn't start until 1999, years after the format grew popular. Mozilla wants to steer clear of patents

But the ambitions of HTML5 video fans is complicated by this codec issue. Firefox supports Ogg Theora, and Opera Software is working on following suit. But Apple's Safari supports H.264. Google's Chrome supports both, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer supports neither.

Consequently, in 2009, HTML5 specification editor and Google employee Ian Hickson reluctantly decided that HTML5 couldn't specify a particular codec.

Not just about the money
MPEG LA offers the patents under what it calls the AVC/H.264 Patent Portfolio License. It's also known as MPEG-4 Part 10.

Although that's been royalty-free in the Internet-streaming context, it costs money for commercial streaming, cameras, video editing software, media players, and Web browsers. MPEG LA plans to announce later this year the new royalty rates for those uses, it said.

And browsers is one area H.264 gets complicated: open-source software typically may not use patented technology unless license agreements explicitly permit it. That's not the case with H.264, which is one reason Mozilla doesn't support the technology in Firefox, which is distributed not just by Mozilla but also by Linux companies and others who use Firefox derivatives.

Even if Mozilla wanted to license the code, it's not a simple matter: Mozilla said the H.264 license would cost $5 million.

Open-source software such as Firefox or free software such as Adobe Systems' Flash Player, which includes H.264 support get no special treatment, according to a comment by Allen Harkness, MPEG LA's director of global licensing.

"Licenses do not make any distinction for products offered for free (whether open source or otherwise)," he said.

And although companies making products with H.264 support must pay royalties, Harkness raised the specter of much broader consequences for those using unlicensed H.264 technology. "While our licenses are not concluded by end users, anyone in the product chain has liability if an end product is unlicensed," Harkness said.

Among the companies whose patents are licensed through the H.264 policy are Apple, with a single patent, Microsoft, with dozens, and several consumer electronics companies that also have dozens of patents involved. A full H.264 patent list in PDF form is available on the MPEG LA site.

Update 1:48 a.m. PST: Added more detail about H.264 licensing and open-source software.