Apparently feeling the threat which Google’s royalty-free WebM video format and VP8 codec could do to usher in an age of royalty-free video decoding, the MPEG-LA has thrown down the gauntlet. Instead of offering free H.264 decoding up till 2015 for online videos, the consortium has announced that encoding free-to-view online videos with the H.264 codec will be made royalty-free indefinitely. But is this enough to push the format for use in HTML5?
Read on for more information.
Some time back, we posted the news about Google freeing the source to its newly-acquired VP8 codec under a BSD license to much fanfare. Many also rightfully believed that Google’s sheer might is enough to get the world to adopt its royalty-free codec and video streaming format (WebM) as the de-facto standard instead of the proprietary, patent-encumbered H.264 codec currently in use.
And it actually worked. Days after Google announced its intentions for WebM and VP8, the search giant immediately got down to business by beginning the task of re-encoding its entire database of Youtube videos into the WebM format, while prominent web browsers such as Opera and Firefox released developer builds which featured built-in WebM capability.
But the most interesting change of heart came from Microsoft. While the company has announced that Internet Explorer 9 will only come bundled with H.264 support, the browser will also permit playback of WebM video content as long as the appropriate codec has been installed into the OS. This currently leaves Apple’s Safari as the only browser to not support the royalty-free codec, an act which contradicts its supposed commitment to the ‘open web’.
And apparently, the huge support WebM has gained in less than three months has rattled the MPEG-LA. The consortium first responded to WebM by confirming that it was currently planning a patent pool for Google’s new VP8, except that to date, there has been no news or updates about the supposed patent pool it was working on. And now, it has a bigger surprise: the consortium has declared that videos encoded with H.264 for online viewing will be made royalty free.
Now, this sounds good, but looking though the MPEG-LA’s press release reveals a critical issue which has yet to be addressed. Specifically, MPEG-LA’s stance protects only the end-user who wishes to make use of the H.264 codec for the encoding of his video for online viewing. This means that only content creators will be covered by the royalty-free clause.
On the other hand, most consumers are content consumers, not creators. And that is where the real issue is: the decoder required for viewing such content is patent-encumbered and not royalty free. And it is this issue which many browsers remain opposed to. Opera has claimed that the licensing costs for the H.264 decoder is extremely expensive, while Mozilla has stated that its stance on supporting a free and open internet has no place for the H.264 decoder (it will not play H.264 videos even if the code is present).
Still, it is interesting to see how the various browser vendors will react to this sudden change of stance from the MPEG-LA. No doubt content creators will be elated at the fact that they can now freely encode their videos with the H.264 codec and upload it to the internet without fears of getting slapped by hefty licensing charges, but when it comes to streaming such content, the browser is the biggest hurdle in the equation.
And as long as prominent web browser vendors like Google, Mozilla and Opera continue to throw their weight against the proprietary H.264 codec, it seems like the de-facto standard for HTML5 video will not be determined anytime soon.