MPEG LA extends royalty-free use of H.264 video codec for Internet use

The MPEG Licensing Authority has indefinitely extended the royalty-free Internet broadcasting licensing of its H.264 video codec to end users. The move erases a key advantage of Google’s WebM rival and strengthens 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 nondiscriminatory 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 nonlicensed code and the legal quandary that involves).

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 and user-created videos).

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.

Google made waves earlier this year after it acquired On2 and released its VP8 codec under the name WebM. 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 future threat of H.264 licensing is irrelevant because by 2015 there will be a new H.265 standard emerging.

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.

Many 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.

Currently, 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).