File Under: HTML5, Multimedia

Royalty Deadline for H.264 Extended, But It’s Still Bad for the Web

As if the web’s video codec issues weren’t complex enough, the group that controls the licensing and royalties for the H.264 video codec has announced that H.264 will remain royalty-free until the end of 2016.

One the surface it sounds like a good thing — at least until 2016, you’re free to post H.264 videos on your web site without paying royalties to MPEG-LA, the controlling body. But after 2016, MPEG-LA could charge you whatever it wants — even an Austin Powers-style one million dollars per second of video.

MPEG-LA’s latest move seems ripped straight from a crack dealer’s marketing guide — “Here kid, the first hit’s free.” Then, once the web is even more heavily invested in H.264 than it is now, MPEG-LA can set its royalty fees at whatever rate it wants, sit back and reap the profits.

This news comes at a time when the web is in a heated debate over how to best display videos in the browser. The vast majority of content providers rely on Flash (which can decode H.264) to show videos. The certainty of Flash’s longevity on the web was thrown into question by the recent arrival of the iPad, which, like the iPhone, iPod Touch and other mobile devices, doesn’t support the Flash Player software. Some sites are experimenting with using HTML5 to display videos in either H.264 or Ogg Theora file formats. But different browser makers have chosen to support different file formats because of the licensing complexities — Mozilla, Apple, Opera and Google are all picking different sides.

It’s important to understand that the royalty fees being deferred by MPEG LA are in addition to the licensing fees the group already has in place (at over US$50,000 per year). Proponents of H.264, along with many unaware users, often argue that the licensing fees are irrelevant because web users like you and I remain unaffected by them.

But that doesn’t mean that the licensing fees won’t affect the web. Sure, the fees are no big deal for Apple, YouTube and other established players, but what if you want to build a web video encoding service to compete with YouTube and Vimeo? Well, if you want to serve your video to iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad users you’re going to need to come with $50,000+ in licensing fees.

Even without the royalty fees arriving in 2016, the licensing costs alone put start ups at a disadvantage, meaning that an H.264-encumbered web might well miss out on the next big leap in web video sharing.

Then there’s the decoding side of the equation.

At least part of the reason Mozilla and Opera refuse to support H.264 is the licensing fee necessary for software that decodes H.264. While both companies can likely afford it, smaller players can’t. For example, if you want to distribute your own version of Firefox, or simply create something totally new — some next-generation web browser or add-on based on Mozilla code — again, get ready to pony up the licensing fees if you plan to support H.264.

Even using Flash to decode H.264 doesn’t protect you from the licensing fees. As the Adobe H.264 page notes: “commercial use of the Flash Player to decode H.264 video may require a separate license.”

We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with H.264 or MPEG-LA’s desire to make money off it, but let’s not delude ourselves — H.264 isn’t a viable solution for the web’s open video woes.

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