Apple-supported H.264 standard gains free license for Internet video use

Posted:
in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited January 2014
The MPEG Licensing Authority has announced that it will indefinitely extend royalty-free Internet broadcasting licensing of its H.264 video codec to end users, erasing a key advantage of Google's WebM rival and cementing Apple's preferred H.264 as the video format for modern HTML5 video on the web.



The MPEG LA manages licensing of the patent pool for H.264 video compression for a variety of companies that have jointly contributed the intellectual property behind the standard, a group that includes Apple.



While anyone can license H.264 under non-discriminatory terms, free software advocates have condemned the use of commercially licensed video codecs on the grounds that it forces web content into a form that requires licensing fees to play back (or alternatively requires the use of non-licensed code and the legal quandary that involves).



Apple and H.264



MPEG LA commonly refers to H.264 video as AVC (Advanced Video Codec); the video standard is also known as MPEG-4 Part 10. While Apple calls the related MPEG audio codec AAC (Advanced Audio Codec), it consistently refers to MPEG's AVC video standard as H.264.



Apple leveraged the popularity of iTunes and iPod to quickly make AAC the successor to MP3 audio in iTunes for commercial content; the company then subsequently standardized upon H.264 soon after that standard was released, aggressively pushing it as the format used for commercial video downloads and rentals in iTunes, and supporting it as the primary video standard supported by the iPod, iPhone, and other iOS devices for both commercial and free video (including video podcasts, iTunes U, and user-created videos).



For Apple, the licensing fees involved with AAC and H.264 are insignificant because the benefits of H.264 (including its state of the art technical sophistication and broad support for efficient hardware decoding) far outweigh the licensing costs. Apple's status as a commercial developer also prevents it from sharing the ideological and financial aversion free software projects have with commercial codecs.



Mozilla's Ogg War against H.264



In contrast, free software advocates have worried that the MPEG LA would begin charging unreasonable fees from Internet broadcasters to license H.264 video for use on the web beginning in 2015, when the authority's existing "free for end users" license was set to expire.



This argument was originally used to induce support for alternative codecs available for royalty-free use, including Ogg Vobis for audio and Ogg Theora for video. Mozilla and others even petitioned the working group for HTML5 to make Ogg Theora the standard codec for web video in order to ensure that users of its free browser would be able to view web videos without Mozilla needing to subsidize the inclusion of H.264 support, or requiring its users to obtain a codec themselves.



Google made waves earlier this year after it acquired On2 and released its VP8 codec under the name WebM, providing a more sophisticated alternative to Ogg Theora that had the same royalty-free licensing. Apple and other commercial developers rejected WebM because the codec is not supported in hardware (and therefore not efficiently playable on mobile devices), and because WebM is widely believed to include technology patented by MPEG-4 stakeholders, making it a potential minefield for commercial developers with deep pockets.



Now that the MPEG LA has committed to royalty-free web licensing for H.264 throughout the life of the license, Mozilla has changed its tune to suggest the the future threat of H.264 licensing is irrelevant because by 2015 there will be a new H.265 standard emerging, and that royalty free alternatives like WebM already exist.



Mozilla continues to refer to H.264 as "royalty encumbered," but the MPEG LA has also threatened to hit WebM users with patent claims, making all codecs that use modern video techniques "royalty encumbered."



Web video standards war likely to continue



Apple has pressured the MPEG LA to keep licensing affordable in the past, originally holding up support for MPEG-4 in QuickTime until the authority agreed to reasonable licensing terms. A combination of pressure from Apple and the competitive threat from Google's WebM likely prompted the group to officially agree not to impose any future licensing restrictions on the free web applications of H.264.



Despite the move however, Google, Mozilla and Opera appear set to continue to push WebM as a competing standard to H.264 for web video, even though WebM is not intended to serve as a mobile codec, nor is it aimed at high end applications such as Blu-Ray.



In particular, Google's support for WebM has threatened to derail its use of H.264 within YouTube, a move which could potentially result in making the company's vast video repository incompatible with Apple's iOS devices, which only support MPEG-4 codecs including H.264. That prospect was far less likely before the company aimed its Android platform as a direct competitor to Apple's mobile iOS devices.



However, most other web video vendors (including Brightcove and Vimeo) have migrated their offerings from proprietary Adobe Flash video to support H.264 playback specifically in order to support Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. After an initial move toward H.264 from Flash, Google now appears most interested in voicing its support for Flash and WebM, neither of which are capable or optimized for playback on Apple's iOS devices.



Currently however, Google continues to support iOS-compatible H.264 video playback in YouTube, and any change in support for H.264 would seemingly be untenable because of the demand for H.264 video from mobile devices that can't currently support either Flash or WebM (which include not just Apple's iOS products, but nearly all existing mobile devices).



Google's Chrome browser also supports H.264 video playback, as the company (like Apple) is not financially burdened by H.264 licensing fees, even in its free products. That means if Mozilla and Opera continue to push for WebM and do not support H.264, their users will likely just move to free alternatives (Chrome, Apple's Safari, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer) that do in order to be able to play back H.264 video content on the web.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 53
    davegeedavegee Posts: 2,765member
    Quote:

    The MPEG Licensing Authority has announced that it will indefinitely extend royalty-free Internet broadcasting licensing of its H.264 video codec to end users, erasing a key advantage of Google's WebM rival and cementing Apple's preferred H.264 as the video format for modern HTML5 video on the web.



    Define Indefinitely:



    indefinitely |inˈdefənitlē|

    adverb For an unlimited or unspecified period of time : talks cannot go on indefinitely.

    • [as submodifier ] to an unlimited or unspecified degree or extent : an indefinitely large number of channels.
  • Reply 2 of 53
    shadashshadash Posts: 470member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by DaveGee View Post


    Define Indefinitely:



    indefinitely |inˈdefənitlē|

    adverb For an unlimited or unspecified period of time : talks cannot go on indefinitely.

    ? [as submodifier ] to an unlimited or unspecified degree or extent : an indefinitely large number of channels.



    ?adjective

    1.

    not definite; without fixed or specified limit; unlimited: an indefinite number.

    2.

    not clearly defined or determined; not precise or exact: an indefinite boundary; an indefinite date in the future



    You're playing with words. Kind of like what the meaning of the word "is" is. They'd have some pretty pissed off people if said this and then later charged.
  • Reply 3 of 53
    Sounds like this answers some people's concerns about video with HTML5.

    Now what are the complainers going to come up with to complain about?
  • Reply 4 of 53
    msuberlymsuberly Posts: 226member
    I read this and now my head hurts.
  • Reply 5 of 53
    Yay! Nail... Coffin... Flash... Wham!
  • Reply 6 of 53
    If HTML5 is going to take over Flash for video content delivery by the big media companies, it needs to have DRM. We all don't like DRM, but the content creators do. There are other choices, but Flash isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
  • Reply 7 of 53
    sheffsheff Posts: 1,407member
    I hope this promts Mozilla to put h.264 into FF4. I love FF4, but when I tried using WebM, but it made my mac's fans spin even faster than flash at the time. Today I can watch flash and h.264 vids in Chrome/Safari with barely any increase in fan speed (a fairly good measure of CPU load and especially battery life).



    I gotta say that both WebM and Ogg are further away from what I want - universality and low cpu load then even flash 10.1. I love the way h.264 streams, its cpu load etc, and flash is catching up.



    Hopefully now that IE is even rumored to support h.264 Mozilla will change it's stance, though that might only happen by firefox 4.5. Until then I'm gonna continue my now almost year long experiment with Chrome.
  • Reply 8 of 53
    anonymouseanonymouse Posts: 6,580member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by sheff View Post


    I hope this promts Mozilla to put h.264 into FF4. I love FF4, but when I tried using WebM, but it made my mac's fans spin even faster than flash at the time. Today I can watch flash and h.264 vids in Chrome/Safari with barely any increase in fan speed (a fairly good measure of CPU load and especially battery life).



    I gotta say that both WebM and Ogg are further away from what I want - universality and low cpu load then even flash 10.1. I love the way h.264 streams, its cpu load etc, and flash is catching up.



    Hopefully now that IE is even rumored to support h.264 Mozilla will change it's stance, though that might only happen by firefox 4.5. Until then I'm gonna continue my now almost year long experiment with Chrome.



    And this is exactly what Google had in mind for Firefox when they acquired and released WebM.
  • Reply 9 of 53
    I wonder if "END USERS" mean regular Joe consumer or Broadcasters?
  • Reply 10 of 53
    normmnormm Posts: 570member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by DaveGee View Post


    Define Indefinitely:



    indefinitely |inˈdefənitlē|

    adverb For an unlimited or unspecified period of time : talks cannot go on indefinitely.

    ? [as submodifier ] to an unlimited or unspecified degree or extent : an indefinitely large number of channels.



    Since patents only last for 20 years, indefinitely means that MPEGLA won't charge for any free internet broadcast using h264 for that long. After that, they can't charge.
  • Reply 11 of 53
    djsherlydjsherly Posts: 1,020member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by studiomusic View Post


    Sounds like this answers some people's concerns about video with HTML5.

    Now what are the complainers going to come up with to complain about?



    It only applies to free, web delivered video.



    There are other types of licences for which fee will continue to be charged, so the production change is not, in any sense, royalty free.



    This only serves to be a distraction however from the substantive point that free video delivered to an end user will continue to be free. From an ideological viewpoint the fact that it is free as in beer is neither here nor there.
  • Reply 12 of 53
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by djsherly View Post


    It only applies to free, web delivered video.



    There are other types of licences for which fee will continue to be charged, so the production change is not, in any sense, royalty free.



    This only serves to be a distraction however from the substantive point that free video delivered to an end user will continue to be free. From an ideological viewpoint the fact that it is free as in beer is neither here nor there.



    Who expected one to be able to broadcast and charge folks w/o paying royalties. You'd have to be an imbecile to think that would happen.
  • Reply 13 of 53
    I never got interested in these tortoise steps for making standards.
  • Reply 14 of 53
    frank777frank777 Posts: 5,796member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by NormM View Post


    Since patents only last for 20 years, indefinitely means that MPEGLA won't charge for any free internet broadcast using h264 for that long. After that, they can't charge.



    I'm not totally opposed to software patents.

    But given the rate of change in the software game, software patents should only last five years.



    ---



    Does anybody have any real-world examples of what this decision means?



    Do internet broadcasters (independent channels, educational providers etc.) have to pay royalties or not?

    Even if the stream is free, there is a commercial aspect to the service.



    If they do, what are the royalty fees?
  • Reply 15 of 53
    pwjpwj Posts: 19member
    (Please pardon me in advance for this tirade)



    As happy as I am to see to see MPEGLA licensing H.264 for free, it really doesn't matter, since H.264 will remain closed source. That presents a huge problem for any distributor of open-source software (namely Mozilla), since the Gnu licensing families aren't compatible with licensed, closed-source software.

    (This might affect Chrome as well, though since Chrome integrates Flash I'm fairly certain that this won't be an issue)



    If Mozilla is left out in the cold on H.264, HTML5 video suffers since >90% of all browsers (remember, IE continues to drag its heels when it comes to internet video) won't be able to play back H.264 content



    That's a darned shame, because H.264 is clearly the superior codec for the job (Ogg Vorbis is nice since it's open-source, but H.264 beats it technically; I don't know enough about WebM so I'll defer to this article)





    Now, rant time: if it weren't for those terrible things called software patents, we could standardize on H.264 and be done with this format war

    1. Software patents clearly are illegal under Supreme Court precedent: do some Wikipedia cruising and you'll see that software patents (or at least H.264) miserably fail the "machine or transformation test", since software patents aren't manifested in a specific physical machine nor do they effect a transformation in physical

    2. Software patents clearly do not retard technological progress! If you listen to groups like MPEGLA, you'd assume that software patents were required for progress to occur since innovation won't happen without monopolies. I beg to differ:

    a) the world's best mobile browsers (and desktop browsers) are ALL based on WebKit, an open-source project initiated by Apple from the KHTML code

    b) the underpinnings of the two most recently successful mobile platforms (Android and iOS) are both open-sourced (the entire Android software stack and the Darwin OS respectfully)

    c) Linux (yeah, not successful on the desktop, but go check out any supercomputer or server and there's a pretty good chance it's Linux)

    d) the entire notion of a browser that doesn't suck (Firefox v IE back in the dark ages)

    e) vast majority of web technologies (HTML, Python, PHP, JavaScript, etc.)





    Seriously. Software patents clearly do not protect progress; all I see them do is retard it (this whol H.264 thing would go away if MPEGLA open-sourced it and everyone instantly adopted it!)



    I'll cut it here. Software-patents will give me an aneurysm one of these days
  • Reply 16 of 53
    djsherlydjsherly Posts: 1,020member
    Nevermind
  • Reply 17 of 53
    g3prog3pro Posts: 669member
    So, it only applies to free recordings. What is the cost of H264 licensing if there is revenue being made?
  • Reply 18 of 53
    djsherlydjsherly Posts: 1,020member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by g3pro View Post


    So, it only applies to free recordings. What is the cost of H264 licensing if there is revenue being made?



    The article conveniently leaves that bit out but I suspect not much turns on it anyway. If you're paying for content nothing much is going to change.
  • Reply 19 of 53
    benroethigbenroethig Posts: 2,782member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by anonymouse View Post


    And this is exactly what Google had in mind for Firefox when they acquired and released WebM.



    Google had nothing in mind for firefix, it's mozilla's product. They prefer everyone would be using chrome.
  • Reply 20 of 53
    successsuccess Posts: 1,039member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by studiomusic View Post


    Sounds like this answers some people's concerns about video with HTML5.

    Now what are the complainers going to come up with to complain about?



    Exactly.



    Maybe now they'll just say something like H.264 is a crappy name so we shouldn't use it.
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