UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

H.264 Format Free To End Users Until (At Least) 2016

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 Feb 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?

7 Responses to “H.264 Format Free To End Users Until (At Least) 2016”

  1. “Christopher Blizzard argues that this example illustrates why we must avoid use of formats which have such licensing conditions associated with them.”

    Maybe I didn’t read his blog post hard enough but I thought he was arguing that:

    1) Google hold a lot of power in this space

    2) Google won’t go for H.264 in isolation because they have an alternative

    3) Google are likely to do the right thing in terms of licensing that alternative.

    In that scenario, the questions you end by asking don’t seem all that relevant? Perhaps I missed something??

  2. Hi Andy
    My post isn’t intended to respond directly to the many (useful) points made in Christopher Blizzard’s post. I’m making a response to the final part of his final sentence:

    So that’s the case for supporting free formats and also describes why we should be avoiding H.264 as a fundamental web standard” (my emphasis).

    I’m suggesting that history provides evidence of why patented technologies may have a role to play and that open technologies may take a long time to be usable. Christopher’s post speculates on Google’s power and business opportunities – issues which I have not addressed.

  3. Your title is entirely misleading. It’s not free – they just aren’t charging for one kind of use – sending a file encoded with H.264 over the Internet. Everything else in the value chain is charged for.

    To be clear, my point was that it’s a bad idea to put formats which have active and litigious organization behind it under the illusion that they won’t maximize their opportunity down the road. See how many times the word “sues” is used here:

    Also the press release is pretty misleading because it leaves out the fact that they charge for basically everything else. For example, did you know that the H.264 licenses that come with Windows 7 and Final Cut Pro are for non-commercial use? If you want to use them in a commercial enterprise, you need a separate license from the MPEG-LA.

    Hope is not a strategy.

    • Thanks for the response. Obviously when I use the phrase “free to end users” in the title of my post I mean free as in beer (for a limited period, for certain customers) and not free as in speech. But the former meaning is well understood – the problems are in the ambiguities of the word.

      Your final comment “Hope is not a strategy” is very interesting – which I think is related to views on risk assessment. In your blog post your state that:

      I, like many others, have reason to believe that H.264 will not be Google’s final choice. There’s good reason to believe this: they are purchasing On2. On2 has technologies that are supposed to be better than H.264. If Google owns the rights to those technologies they are very likely to use them on their properties to promote them and are also likely to license them in a web-friendly (i.e. royalty-free) fashion. Google actually has a decent history of doing this.

      Is this not expressing a hope that Google will act in a friendly manner regarding licence conditions for On2? Whilst I would agree with you that Google have publicly expressed a commitment to openness (with the exception of their search algorithms) we, as end users, must hope that circumstances don’t change and force them to change their policies.

  4. Thanks to the author and all who commented, I have a few questions as follows:
    1) When do the H.264 and AAC patents expire?
    2) What are the alternatives to H.264 that might work in the same way that PNG overcame GIF? Is that Ogg (Vorbis and Theora) and, if so, what are the chances of there being “submarine patents?”

    • Thanks for the comment. I would disagree , though, with your comment that “PNG overcame GIF”. Isn’t the evidence that although PNG was developed as a better open standard replacement to GIF, in reality support for PNG is not ubiquitous and the initial main driver for use of PNG (licence costs) have been rendered obsolete by the expiry of the patents?

  5. JR Namida said

    Is Ogg Vorbis & Theora the proper answer of not having to worry about the any web infrastructure going forward.?


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