H.264 format gets new free license - takes aim at Google and WebM

The growing one-upmanship and debate online around video in HTML 5 has taken a new twist today.

MPEG LA, the company behind the patents for the MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 video codecs as well as H.264, has announced that it will offer a royalty-free license of the H.264 codec to sites that offer the video free to web users.

Video codecs are algorithms that are required to encode video to and then decode it from a given format so that a viewer may watch the video. Often components of these algorithms are patented by various companies; in the case of H.264, patent holders include Apple, Microsoft, Qualcomm and more. This set of patents is collected into a so-called “patent pool”, which is managed by the MPEG LA organisation. It takes payment for other companies licensing the technology, and distributes this payment to the patent holders (this only applies in countries in which algorithm patenting is upheld by law).

So why does all of this actually matter?

H.264 is one video codec that has been proposed as the standard video format to be used in HTML 5’s video embedding tag. For the first time, all of the major browser vendors have been working hard to make sure all of their latest versions support the HTML 5 family of standards in the same way. This is to allow web developers to design their apps once, and to know they will work across various browsers. The final major point of disagreement is on the encoding format used for the video delivery. Firefox are supporting the open-source Ogg format. Google brought out and support their own allegedly patent-free WebM format, along with Opera and Firefox. Safari, Google and Microsoft’s IE 9 all support H.264 having paid its licensing fee, but Firefox does not as it refuses to pay up.

The video format selected is one that affects web developers strongly. If everybody cannot agree on a single standard, developers will be left with encoding video in multiple formats (and possibly incurring charges for codecs such as H.264). However, if all the browser vendors agree on a single, free to use codec, it makes developer’s lives everywhere easier in guaranteeing support across browsers, operating systems, and platforms.

MPEG LA’s announcement today means that for sites such as YouTube (i.e. those which distribute exclusively free content to users) they will incur no charges for the H.264 algorithms until past 2015. This waiver, however, does not cover those decoding videos for the user. This means that Firefox will be subject to licensing charges, which Mozilla will unlikely bow down to.

Find out more about today’s announcement at VentureBeat. We’ll keep you up to date on video and HTML 5 as more news comes in.

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