File Under: Multimedia

MPEG LA Extends Web Video Licensing Moratorium Until the End of Time

The group that oversees patents on the H.264 video format has announced it will not charge royalties for H.264 videos that are freely broadcast on the internet.

The MPEG Licensing Association (MPEG LA) holds patents on AVC/H.264, the most widely-used video format on the web.

The group announced earlier this year that it would extend a moratorium on royalty fees for H.264 videos on the web from 2011 until the end of 2015. Thursday’s announcement extends this royalty-free period for “the entire life of [the AVC Patent Portfolio] license.”

This means that as long as H.264/AVC videos are around, publishers can post them on web pages and people can watch them in their browsers without having to pay any licensing fees.

The moratorium is only for the Internet Broadcast AVC video patent, which covers videos that are freely available via a web browser. Thursday’s announcement basically extends the status quo until the end of time — you don’t have to pay MPEG LA royalties to watch H.264 video on the web from free services now, and you won’t have to in the future.

The MPEG LA says it will continue to collect fees on AVC/H.264 video that consumers pay for. The video format is used on Blu-Ray discs and on most on-demand and paid video delivery services, such as iTunes. It will also continue to collect fees from software that ships with the coders and decoders required to play H.264 video — even software that’s distributed for free, such as web browsers.

Clearly, the MPEG LA is feeling pressure from the WebM Project, a new initiative launched in May that seeks to build a patent-free web video format. The project has created the WebM format as an alternative for H.264 and other patent-encumbered formats. WebM has already gained the support of Mozilla, Google and Opera, all of which are shipping new versions of their browsers with support built in. It has also gained the support of developers passionate about free and open web standards, especially as the web increasingly moves towards HTML5-based video experiences that work without the aid of plug-ins like Flash.

As promising as WebM’s advancements are, H.264 remains the dominant format for video on the web by a very wide margin — about two thirds of web video is H.264. By extending the royalty moratorium, the MPEG LA is likely trying to maintain that dominance on the web and encourage content providers to continue to use its format for publishing videos. By doing so, it also guarantees the group a revenue stream of licensing fees from the tools used to create, encode and watch those videos — cameras, editing software, authoring suites and web browsers.

Meanwhile, open web advocates like Mozilla are encouraging the W3C to adopt WebM as a standard for HTML5 video. Right now, the web’s governing body doesn’t require a web browser to ship with any specific video codecs.

The WebM project was spearheaded by Google after it acquired video company On2 last year, and the WebM format is based on On2′s VP8 codec. The MPEG LA has suggested that VP8 does infringe upon some of its patents, though this hasn’t been proved. Google says it has thoroughly audited the technology and found no patent complications.

If WebM does run afoul of MPEG LA’s patent portfolio in any way, it could zap any momentum the format has gained, as content providers would have no incentive to switch from H.264 to WebM. Also, any patent infringement would torpedo WebM’s chances of being adopted as a W3C standard.

Google and MPEG LA did not respond to requests to comment on this story. Mozilla declined to comment on the record.

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