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Mozilla's VP of Engineering On H.264 675

We recently discussed news that YouTube and Vimeo are each testing their own HTML5 video players using the H.264 format. Firefox does not support H.264, and Mozilla's vice president of engineering, Mike Shaver, has now made a post explaining why. Quoting: "For Mozilla, H.264 is not currently a suitable technology choice. In many countries, it is a patented technology, meaning that it is illegal to use without paying license fees to the MPEG-LA. Without such a license, it is not legal to use or distribute software that produces or consumes H.264-encoded content. Indeed, even distributing H.264 content over the internet or broadcasting it over the airwaves requires the consent of the MPEG-LA, and the current fee exemption for free-to-the-viewer internet delivery is only in effect until the end of 2010. These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content." Mozilla developer Robert O'Callahan has written a blog post on the same subject, following a talk he gave on Friday about the importance of open video on the web.
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Mozilla's VP of Engineering On H.264

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  • Re:HTML5 Video (Score:5, Informative)

    by porneL ( 674499 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:28AM (#30878442) Homepage

    Remember that Opera proposed video element in the first place [] and they've chosen Theora from the start. They're not fond of patents, and may not want to choose H.264, especially if Mozilla doesn't.

  • by Pinky's Brain ( 1158667 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:45AM (#30878604)

    Flash is H.264.

  • Re:FFmpeg (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jahava ( 946858 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:51AM (#30878666)
    Just because there's an LGPL project supporting something doesn't mean that patents and licenses don't apply. For more information about this, read the FFMPEG FAQ [].

    Mozlla's concerns don't seem related at all to the implementation of the video. Rather, they're concerned about the licensing issues related to their usage of it. According to the article (and the summary, at that), the only reason H264 is even legally embeddable in current software is due to a free-to-viewer clause, and even that may permanently expire in 2010.

    Currently, most of the web (Flash excluded) is free to generate. I can make an HTML document, or a tool to generate HTML documents, and render those HTML documents without paying or owing anybody anything. To legally generate H264 files, you must pay for a license. To build software that generates H264 files, the software company must pay for a license. And (possibly) after 2010, a viewer or viewer software may have to pay for a license to watch the content. These are some pretty huge issues to overcome.

  • Re:Vorbis and MKV (Score:5, Informative)

    by sopssa ( 1498795 ) * <> on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:54AM (#30878702) Journal

    Ogg/Vorbis/Theora are unencumbered and free. No "deals" need to be worked out.
    Ogg/Vorbis/Theora has reasonable quality and compression.
    It can be placed into a MKV container [], also unencumbered and free.

    You are kind of comparing wrong things here. Both MKV and Ogg are merely containers (and H.264 can be placed inside MKV container too, and is usually done so).

    Also, Theora and H.264 aren't technically equivalent. Theora is kinda there, but it misses many features, is more heavy on hardware and requires a larger bitrate to get the same results. It also completely misses support for B-frames, variable frame rates, interlacing, and larger than 8-bits bit-depths. It also loses out because the creators have chosen to maintain backwards compatibility in cost of being technically superior.

    Another thing that manages to create more support for H.264 is that blu-ray, PS3, DVB (digital television in europe, including cable) and several other services and devices already support it.

  • Re:Sigh (Score:5, Informative)

    by FrostedWheat ( 172733 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:56AM (#30878718)

    All of your arguments are irrelevant if the licensing issue can't be solved. Firefox can only use codecs that are not covered by restrictive licensing, no matter how good it looks. (And I agree with you, H.264 does looks good) Their choice is basically:

    • MPEG-1: ancient and horribly outdated. (And may yet be covered by patents?)
    • Theora is good enough and much easier on the CPU than Dirac or H.264.
    • Dirac is (for now) a poor performer at the typical resolutions and bitrates used on the net.

    Theora is the best of these options. It doesn't matter how good H.264 looks, it's simply impossible for Mozilla to use it without dealing with the licensing issue.

  • Re:Sigh (Score:3, Informative)

    by porneL ( 674499 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:57AM (#30878734) Homepage

    It is patented, and in exactly the same way as h264 will form a toll both on the internet

    All known Theora patents have royalty-free license. Only thing that is "exactly same way" here is risk of submarine patents.

  • Re:FFmpeg (Score:3, Informative)

    by GreatBunzinni ( 642500 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:57AM (#30878738)

    That may be correct in a technical point of view and a very simple solution to this problem. Unfortunately, the world is a bit more complex than that, thanks for the mess of convoluted rules which each jurisdiction imposes on it's citizens. In this case, if you take a look at ffmpeg's patents min-FAQ" [] you will notice the following disclaimers:

    Q: Does FFmpeg use patented algorithms?
    A: We do not know, we are not lawyers so we are not qualified to answer this. Also we have never read patents to implement any part of FFmpeg, so even if we were qualified we could not answer it as we do not know what is patented. Furthermore the sheer number of software patents makes it impossible to read them all so no one (lawyer or not) could answer such a question with a definite no, those who do lie. What we do know is that various standards FFmpeg supports contain vague hints that any conforming implementation might be subject to some patent rights in some jurisdictions, examples for such statements are:
    For H.264:

            ITU draws attention to the possibility that the practice or implementation of this Recommendation may involve the use of a claimed Intellectual Property Right. ITU takes no position concerning the evidence, validity or applicability of claimed Intellectual Property Rights, whether asserted by ITU members or others outside of the Recommendation development process.

    Q: Is it safe to use such patented algorithms?
    A: Patent laws vary wildly between jurisdictions, and in many countries patents on algorithms are not recognized. Plus the use of patents to prevent the usage of a format or codec on a specific operating system or together with specific other software might violate antitrust laws. So whether you are safe or not depends on where you live and how judges interpret the law in your jurisdiction.

    So, although ffmpeg supports H.264 and other patent-encumbered formats, it does so in spite of the patents that affect the implementations. As a consequence, they make it clear that if you rely on ffmpeg then you are at your own risk. And needlessly putting yourself at risk is never a good thing.

  • Re:HTML5 Video (Score:4, Informative)

    by pmontra ( 738736 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @11:58AM (#30878744) Homepage
    Why troll? AC is correct. The article gives a nice answer to the OP. It's the OP that totally missed the point.
  • Re:Nonsense (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:11PM (#30878862)

    Don't people have to cough up a license fee to implement USB? PCI? AGP?

    For USB the only fees are for using official logos to show a product passed certification testing. For PCI you pay 3K/year for a membership to get a PCI ID assigned, but there is no licensing fee I am aware of. I don't know about AGP.

  • Re:Nonsense (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:12PM (#30878870)
    Little problem: Even if Mozilla caves in and pays the license fee, that does not cover anyone else distributing Firefox. Canonical would also have to pay the $5 million for Ubuntu's browser. Firefox would effectively no longer be open source as it would be illegal to compile it (with H.264 support) and distribute the resulting binary.
  • DON'T PANIC! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Mad Fish The One ( 1563291 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:13PM (#30878886)

    Mozilla is going to implement gstreamer backend for html5 video element. See Bug 422540 [].

    Also, Opera developers are going the same way. See this blog post [].

    Using gstreamer as a backend will eliminate ALL the problems with codecs. Forever. It will be able to play just the same as a usual desktop players, and that means, it will be able to play Ogg Theora, H.264, DivX, whatever you like - it's only a matter of plugins installed.

  • Re:Vorbis and MKV (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:14PM (#30878890)

    It's the patent minefield that is preventing theora from becoming the vorbis of video codecs. The developers can't implement some features, like those you've listed, for risk of patent litigation. It's not about backward compatibility.

  • Re:Sigh (Score:5, Informative)

    by psnyder ( 1326089 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:16PM (#30878920)

    There must be SOMEONE out there with a great experimental video codec that just needs some love.

    There are already a lot of video codecs out there [], because there's a lot of ways to implement it. They all try to balance numerous factors within performance and quality. It's not easy. There's no one "holy grail" that produces perfect pictures while using a smaller number of resources than all of the others.

    The editors of HTML5 are Ian Hickson (Google, Inc.) and David Hyatt (Apple, Inc.) [] Apple uses h264 in almost everything, so they would probably like to see it as the standard.

  • Re:More patent abuse (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:17PM (#30878924)

    Actually, the patents can't cover the bitstreams. Case law such as In re Warmerdam indicates that nonfunctional descriptive material (such as a picture or a song) isn't a process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, so it doesn't meet the requirements of 35 USC 101.

    However, the patents can potentially cover (modulo any prior art issues) the process of transmitting the bitstreams. It may sound like some really thin slices of salami to you, but that's how the law works.

    By the way, your example about the "fancy new saw" and the resulting cut wood is wrong. As long as the cut wood resulting from using the fancy new saw has a specific, substantial, and credible use (for example, it's not merely ornamental, although there's something called a design patent that covers ornamental designs), it is patent eligible under 35 USC 101, because it's an article of manufacture.

  • Re:Sigh (Score:5, Informative)

    by BZ ( 40346 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:21PM (#30878972)

    > H.264 is a free and open standard, just not in the US.

    Or France or Germany, last I checked (as in, there are H.264 patents that have been granted by those countries; these are not _software_ patents but patents on the design of the codec). I haven't looked into detail for other countries, but I think you're making some unjustified assumptions here (like "h.264 patents are software patents").

  • Re:Nonsense (Score:4, Informative)

    by BZ ( 40346 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:24PM (#30878994)

    You apparently didn't read the article. The issue is not that Mozilla can't get a license; it can. The issue is that it sees doing so as actively harmful to the web and to users.

  • Re:Nonsense (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:27PM (#30879026) Homepage

    By the way, has any of the Mozilla folk sat down at the table and talked with the folks that own whatever IP needs licensing? Have they, you know, said "dudes, we have 33% of the browser market and our business model isn't structured for this sort of thing". My hunch is they could probably get some kind of deal hammered out. The Mozilla foundation does have some political capital you know--this is a good use of it.

    The GPL and patents intentionally mix like oil and water. Directly from paragraph 7 of the GPLv2: "For example, if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program." You can get around this by covenant not to sue *cough*Novell*cough*, but that's abusing a loophole really.

    That works out great in certain circumstances, for example I can't patent something, add that to a GPL project and control distribution by selling patent licenses. But neither can Mozilla, they can't license it from MPEG LA just for themselves, the GPL basically requires them to license it for everyone. That is why you can download the Chromium source, but you will not get a patent license from that either. Only binary builds of Chrome gets the patent license, since a right to sublicense would destroy MPEG LA's revenue model.

  • Re:Sigh (Score:4, Informative)

    by icebraining ( 1313345 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @12:50PM (#30879276) Homepage

    Most users with Windows Vista and earlier do not have an H.264 codec installed. So for the majority of our users, this doesn't solve any problem.

  • Re:Sigh (Score:3, Informative)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) <{tepples} {at} {}> on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:00PM (#30879368) Homepage Journal

    That would include using OS libraries to play h.264

    The article states that the majority of deployed copies of Windows do not come with OS libraries to play H.264 video.

  • by tepples ( 727027 ) <{tepples} {at} {}> on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:02PM (#30879382) Homepage Journal

    You know that Theora is a work-in-progress, right? That right there says GO AWAY

    The Theora bitstream format is frozen since the beta. All the work in progress is directed at 1. performance of the decoder, and 2. quality of the encoder while producing bitstreams that still play correctly on all conforming decoders.

  • Re:HTML5 Video (Score:4, Informative)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:12PM (#30879460) Journal
    It's modded troll because it's from someone who can't tell the difference between a media API and a media player. The ClickToFlash plugin for Safari will let you use QuickTime for YouTube and it uses about 10-20% of the CPU that Flash uses, while presenting a UI that is more consistent with the rest of the system and the same features (although better buffering). Anyone who'd rather use Flash is an idiot or a troll.
  • Re:Vorbis and MKV (Score:3, Informative)

    by arose ( 644256 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:12PM (#30879464)

    Theora is kinda there, but it misses many features, is more heavy on hardware and requires a larger bitrate to get the same results.

    Any benchmarks out there comparing Theora and H.264 CPU only encoding and decoding? Visual quality for web video only need to be "good enough".

    It also completely misses support for B-frames, variable frame rates, interlacing, and larger than 8-bits bit-depths.

    True, completely false and the last two are irrelevant for web video.

    Another thing that manages to create more support for H.264 is that blu-ray, PS3, DVB (digital television in europe, including cable) and several other services and devices already support it.

    Again, mostly irrelevant for web video. If you are going to talk about hardware support you talk mobile phones, many of which have hardware H.264 decoders. That is the biggest advantage H.264 has over Theora for web video, but if MPEG LA decides to charge content providers and actively enforce it, then even that can't make enough difference for smaller players.

  • Re:Nonsense (Score:3, Informative)

    by zzyzyx ( 1382375 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:26PM (#30879590)

    There is a $2000 fee to buy a unique USB Vendor ID, and the right to use the USB logo for two years, which is pretty much mandatory if you want to make a commercial product.

  • Re:Obligatory (Score:4, Informative)

    by onefriedrice ( 1171917 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:38PM (#30879710)

    It is so utterly archaic and unfair that this is allowed to continue; MPEG-LA have the industry by its consumers by their collective balls.

    Err, not really. Nobody forced anyone to adopt h.264; it just happens that it did get adopted because it actually is a good codec. There are alternatives of varying quality and success, and even if there weren't, nothing is stopping someone from designing one and marketing it.

  • Re:HTML5 Video (Score:3, Informative)

    by arose ( 644256 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @01:45PM (#30879778)
    MPEG-LA didn't "open" anything, they are a post-factum licensing agency, the actual standard was created by the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group.
  • by FrostedWheat ( 172733 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @02:07PM (#30880052)

    Wrong. On2's (soon to be Google's) patents on VP3 / Theora are totally harmless:

    On2 also made an irrevocable, royalty-free license grant for any patent claims it might have over the software and any derivatives

  • Um, hello? (Score:3, Informative)

    by coryking ( 104614 ) * on Sunday January 24, 2010 @02:11PM (#30880124) Homepage Journal

    Firefox users will just get routed to the old flash interface on YouTube. YouTube isn't gonna transcode the whole damn library into some silly format when they can just treat Firefox like a legacy browser and feed it H.264 wrapped up in a .flv. If anything, they wouldn't bother with the whole Video tag at all when Flash worked fine before.

  • by horza ( 87255 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @02:41PM (#30880534) Homepage

    The real reason is the second, that they are ideologically opposed to it. And that stance is only going to hurt them, and they should just get over it. It is not a fight they can possibly win.

    Deja vu. That's what people used to say about Linux and Open Source. They still appear to be around. Anyway, define 'win'.


  • Re:Nonsense (Score:3, Informative)

    by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @02:44PM (#30880568) Homepage

    No other browser supports NoScript-like functionality except for, usually ignored in such "only FF supports that" rants, Opera. For a long, long time...

    BTW, Opera also stands behind Theora (and generally a web accessible to everybody), they proposed the tag.

  • Re:Nonsense (Score:3, Informative)

    by slashqwerty ( 1099091 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @04:10PM (#30881546)

    Except that Firefox is not licensed under the GPL

    Sorry, but yes it is [].

    Core Mozilla project source code is licensed under a disjunctive tri-license giving you the choice of one of the three following sets of free software/open source licensing terms:

    This allows the use of our code in as wide a variety of software projects as possible, while still maintaining copyleft [] on code we wrote.

  • by icknay ( 96963 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @06:30PM (#30882982)
    I did my best attempt at an unbiased comparison which shows Theora to have about a 30% disadvantage, although it uses a slightly older version of Theora: []
  • by Wesley Felter ( 138342 ) <> on Sunday January 24, 2010 @07:02PM (#30883236) Homepage

    pretty much every format universal on the Internet today, got that way because the player/viewer was offered free of charge.

    Not really; MPEG-4 (aka "DivX") is patented and requires royalties; you just didn't notice because either someone paid the royalties for you or you're infringing the patents.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 24, 2010 @07:42PM (#30883642)

    Do you even realize how steep the licensing fees are for MPEG?

    Chris Blizzard was on record a while ago saying that if Mozilla wanted to ship mp3 support in FF, the licensing fees would be somewhere over $500,000 *a day*. h.264 is considerably more expensive. Millions a day. Mozilla would be broke in under a week.

    The MPEG-LA had a little slideshow not long ago talking about how successful it's been. One of the slides said proudly, I kid you not, that in 2008, MPEG-LA took in $66.46 of royalty fees for every man, woman and child ON THE PLANET for MPEG-2 ALONE.

    Oh yeah huurr hurr its all about greasy hippies and freedom. No, its about COLD HARD CASH.

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Sunday January 24, 2010 @10:33PM (#30885120) Journal

    It didn't. HTML5 doesn't mandate any codec for VIDEO element (just like HTML4 doesn't mandate any format for IMG element). The server specifies the codecs it can provide in HTML markup, and the browser picks the best one it can handle.

    It just so happens that the only two major contenders are H.264 and Theora, of which H.264 is technologically superior but patent-encumbered. So Google and Apple are pushing for H.264 (they have already licensed it, so they'd rather go for better quality), while Mozilla and Opera want Theora (it's open and free to implement).

    Whoever wins in practice, it will be a de facto standard, not a part of the spec.

Adding features does not necessarily increase functionality -- it just makes the manuals thicker.