H.264 Format Free To End Users Until (At Least) 2016
Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 February 2010
Shortly after I published my post on “iPad, Flash, HTML 5 and Standards” it seems that the an announcement was made regarding the licence conditions for Web use use of the H.264 video format. Philip Roy alerted me to a press release (PDF format) which announced that the licence deal for H.264 has just been extended until 2016. The press release states that:
MPEG LA announced today that its AVC Patent Portfolio License will continue not to charge royalties for Internet Video that is free to end users (known as Internet Broadcast AVC Video) during the next License term from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2015. Products and services other than Internet Broadcast AVC Video continue to be royalty-bearing, and royalties to apply during the next term will be announced before the end of 2010.
So although Christopher Blizzard was correct when he pointed out that the licence conditions mean “that something that’s free today might not be free tomorrow” it is also true that something that’s free today may continue to be free tomorrow.
A post by Christopher Blizzard entitled “HTML5 video and H.264 – what history tells us and why we’re standing with the web” encourages readers to learn from the lessons of GIF. I can remember what happened just after Christmas in 1999 – the owners of the GIF image format (which was being widely used on the Web) announced that they intended to charge for its use – and these charges would apply to developers who made tools which created or edited GIF images and also Web site owners who made use of GIF images on their Web site (who would have to pay at least $5,000 for use of GIF images!).
As a direct result of this threat to open use of the Web the W3C coordinated development of the PNG (Portable Network Graphic) file format, which provide a royalty-free alternative to GIF which was also had richer functionality.
Christopher Blizzard argues that this example illustrates why we must avoid use of formats which have such licensing conditions associated with them. But there is another view. Although the PNG format has its merits sadly support for the format is flawed. After it was released viewing Web pages containing PNG images in the most widely used browser caused problems for the end user. And I was told by a colleague recently that even today Web pages containing PNG images which are viewed in Internet Explorer version 6 still cause problems.
I also understand Unisys did not enforce the licence conditions on users of the GIF format and, as described in a Wikipedia article, “Unisys was completely unable to generate any good publicity and continued to be vilified by individuals and organizations“.
The patent for the compression algorithm used in GIF has now expired, so there are no barriers to use of GIF. Might the lessons be that it is dangerous to adopt an open standard before tools which support it correctly are widely deployed (rather than just freely available) and that user pressure may result in owners of patented formats being unwilling to enforce payment for use of their formats?