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'Free' H.264 a Precursor To WebM Patent War? 204

webmink writes "The MPEG LA seem unwilling to explain why they have extended their 'free' H.264 streaming video policy now. This article unpacks the history of MPEG LA and then suggests the obvious — it's all because of WebM — and the worrying — maybe it's preparing the ground for opening a third front in the patent war against Google."
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'Free' H.264 a Precursor To WebM Patent War?

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  • Patented Standards (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GuerillaRadio ( 818889 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:21AM (#33423764)

    It seems an obvious requirement now to me that any 'international standards', as H.264 is described in TFA, should not be written by a consortium that have a collection of patents on the only possible implementation of the standard!

    I'm not sure how this would be ensured - maybe the same consortium that pool the defensive patent pool for Linux could start a standards body based around this simple idea.

  • Yeah... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by webheaded ( 997188 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:24AM (#33423768) Homepage
    I'm still rooting for Google's format. I don't care about free as in money so much as free as in open source. I don't see how it could possibly be sustainable for every single company that makes a browser from here on out to have to pay a fee to use this codec. If they put H.264 into the HTML 5 spec, that is only going to make it a pain in the ass for browser developers and open source users. It's stupid. This isn't's just slight of hand. "Look it's free!" Um actually isn't free at all. I wish people writing all the other articles would acknowledge that a little better. This changes nothing.
  • by blackest_k ( 761565 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:32AM (#33423784) Homepage Journal

    The third link has a good explanation of why h264 isn't really free.
    First thing to be noted is that any deal they offer today can be withdrawn in five years anyway.
    The free bit is only that they will not bill the end user.
    the encoding is not free
    the streaming is not free
    and the decoding is absolutely not free.
    The last one means any browser wishing to offer this functionality has to pay for it and unfortunatly it can't pass on the patent protection granted by paying for this so there is no way for firefox to offer this.

    So really we should say no to h264 and hope google doesn't get creamed in its patent battles.

  • by DurendalMac ( 736637 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:44AM (#33423812)

    the encoding is not free

    Unless you use x.264.

    the streaming is not free

    Only for commercial purposes. If it's not paid content, it's 100% free of charge by the MPEG-LA as far as streaming is concerned.

    and the decoding is absolutely not free.

    So all those open source projects like VLC, MPlayer, etc are paying through the nose to the MPEG-LA? That's news to me. And I may be wrong, but the reason Firefox would have to pay through the nose is because they like building everything into the browser (video decoding included) instead of just passing it to the OS, which means it would cost nothing if they were to do it like every other browser out there. I'm not entirely sure about that, but it's the impression I'm getting.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:46AM (#33423822)
    First, kill all the lawyers. Yeah, sure, we'll have some confusion, initially, but... Come on, really. You know it's definitely, at least, worth a try.
  • Wrong (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:54AM (#33423854)

    First thing to be noted is that any deal they offer today can be withdrawn in five years anyway.

    Nope. What part of "royalty free forever" did you not understand? If you read that third link again you'll find it USED TO BE five year periods but now lasts until the patents expire, which essentially means forever since it's all moot after the expiration.

    That argument is dead now.

    so there is no way for firefox to offer this.

    They have more than enough money to pay for this and also could distribute a standalone player module for Linux - because after all, on other platforms they could simply use the native h.264 playback facilities that both Apple and Microsoft offer.

    I understand philosophically where Firefox is coming from but it's not a practical fight and not one Firefox can do anything but be hurt by as more and more users switch to other browsers like Chrome that can play back h.264.

  • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:05AM (#33423894)

    In todays heavily legal world, the ONLY kinds of standards you can rely on are ones where members of the standards group hold patents and pledges the protected use of same to people following that standard.

    Erm, no. You can't rely on companies and individuals implementing a standard. They'll implement anything they like regardless, and then you'll have interoperability issues, pretty much as we have now anyway.

    If you want a standard to be reliably implemented in a wide range of systems, you have to take out the "implementation" part of the equation. That means, distribute a public domain or BSD library which does all the hard work, and let everyone piggyback on that for nothing.

  • Misconceptions (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:11AM (#33423912)

    You can pirate everything and never be able to do proper commercial stuff with your computer. Or you can do it the right legal way and be able to make some money off of it. The problem is of a legal nature. It's not about what you can do at your home when nobody looks. It's more about what you can do in a firm or organization which is subject to some oversight. MPEG LA have said that they do not see a possibility that there is such a thing as a codec that does not violate their patents. And there are problems with getting for instance Full-HD recording equipment which is not subject to h264 patents.

  • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:11AM (#33423918)

    I believe their algorithms should be patentable

    Algorithms are just mathematics. I for one believe mathematics should not be patentable, even though it's one of the hardest subjects on earth.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:13AM (#33423928)

    First thing to be noted is that any deal they offer today can be withdrawn in five years anyway.

    Yes, I can remember that only last year people saying that everybody using H.264 would pay when the MPEG LA jacks up their fees in 2011. That didn't happen of course, which isn't a surprise since the MPEG LA historically always offered the same or better terms when a new licensing period began. Turns out they have something to lose by alienating their customers, especially since they also want to sell future products to them which isn't that easy if people mistrust you.

    the encoding is not free

    Encoding is free, encoders aren't if you distribute more than 100.000 a year.

    the streaming is not free

    It isn't free if the streams are pay per view or part of a payed subscription provided that there are more than 100.000 sales or subscribers per year. If you have to pay it's either 2 cent or 2% of the price per sale (whichever is lower) and at worst 10 cent per year per subscriber.

    and the decoding is absolutely not free.

    Again, decoding is free, distributing more than a certain number of decoders isn't.

    The last one means any browser wishing to offer this functionality has to pay for it and unfortunatly it can't pass on the patent protection granted by paying for this so there is no way for firefox to offer this.

    Any browser can offer H.264 decoding for free by using the system provided codec framework. While Mozilla has been decrying that approach for their desktop browser it's exactly what they do in their mobile version (Fennec). Every modern operating system comes with a H.264 decoder anyway. For older Windows and MacOS systems there are free licensed downloads (Divx, Quicktime) and for Linux systems there is at least a cheap gstreamer plugin (ignoring the fact that almost anyone who uses Linux as a desktop operating system probably has some version of FFMpeg installed anyway).
    Of course this is a problem, but it's a far cry from there being no way to offer such functionality.

  • by daveime ( 1253762 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:50AM (#33424018)

    Yes, I can remember that only last year people saying that everybody using H.264 would pay when the MPEG LA jacks up their fees in 2011. That didn't happen of course, which isn't a surprise since it's not 2011 yet you muppet.

  • by GuerillaRadio ( 818889 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:01AM (#33424054)

    Unfortunately it's going to be harder for Free software going forward. Try writing an opensource point-of-sale or e-commerce program that can directly process credit cards. You can't without spending around $20,000 for PA-DSS auditing. And I see more of these types of industry barriers to entry popping up.

    It won't be harder, it will be impossible - it destroys the mechanism of Free / Open Source software. The way you put it is as if the rise of FOSS is just some kind of unfortunate minority part of the computing world that will be affected, rather than one of the most important, game changing event in the recent history of computing.

  • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:04AM (#33424066)

    it can't pass on the patent protection granted by paying for this so there is no way for firefox to offer this.

    Here I have the feeling I'm still missing something. Why can FF not offer H.264 video? I understand it can not be built in (though they could make two versions of it, with native H.264 for jurisdictions outside software patent land). It's something that comes up all the time.

    Not so long ago I have been playing YouTube videos in H.264 right in FF using mplayer-plugin. There is some greasemonkey script for that, youtube without flash. Maybe not as technically charming as native but for the end user what counts is: it works.

    And before anyone starts riling about plugins: why are plugins bad while add-ons are good? From a user pov they're the same. Just a different name. Both add functionality to a browser that it doesn't do natively.

    Also what I do not understand, is why FF is singled out for this. Chrome is also given away for free, just like Opera and IE. There is also an OS version of Chrome. I never hear about problems of paying for license fees for those browsers. Or any other browsers - which may be because the rest is too small to count.

  • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:24AM (#33424118)

    Google isn't stupid. They got to investigate the format and patents before they bought On2, and of course after once they owned everything. Also, this is precisely the kind of thing Google would be good at: Looking through large amounts of information and figuring out what is relevant. So My guess is that one of both of the following are true:

    1) VP8 (WebM) does not infringe on any MPEG-LA patents, or at least not any real ones. They probably have some overly broad BS ones, but Google probably has examples of prior art. Google did an extensive review and found that there was no infringement, VP8 had been engineered to avoid MPEG-LA patents so that it could be sold without additional license.

    2) On2, and therefor now Google, holds patents on critical technologies used in H.264. In the event of any infringement suit, they can pull those out and file countersuit. Having WebM stopped would not be a real big deal to Google. They aren't using it for anything important yet. Having H.264 stopped would be devastating for MPEG-LA. Google could thus force them to license all relevant patents, at not charge, in return for the licenses to the Google patents.

    Those are my bets. One or both of those is the case and so Google is confident they can win a game of chicken. This also might explain the move by MPEG-LA to put a permanent licensing moratorium on free H.264 stuff, as well as the fact that there is no suit. They may have looked at things and said "Shit, we can't touch VP8. We could try but we'd almost certainly fail and just wind up with a bunch of legal bills, plug give Google an ironclad thing to point to showing WebM is ok." They may have decided it is better to make H.264 look more attractive and perhaps keep up some nebulous threats to make people think twice about implementing WebM.

    Always remember that patent warfare is a dangerous game. The trolls can play it because they don't own anything or make anything losing patents means nothing. In MPEG-LA's case, there could be a lot to lose if things went wrong.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:52AM (#33424192)

    ARM and W-CDMA work in similar ways. ARM happens to own the patents and licenses them to whomever for a reasonable fee. W-CDMA works in much the same way as H.264. You have a bunch of companies that decide to share patents into one resource. It makes it easy for other companies to pay 1 fee and then use the technology.

    Yes, that's how it works.

    And H.264's licensing terms are reasonable

    But here I disagree. The difference between H264 and the above is its application space: both ARM and CDMA have a license covering production of equipment, whereas H264 is offered as a user license. The situation would be comparable if an end-user were charged for every communication over W-CDMA, or every programmer was billed for generating ARM machine-code (using a licensed compiler etc).

    As it stands, end users are still liable for royalties concerning the codec in addition to the patent fees they may have already paid for by purchasing a digital camera / BR player. That's why the MPEG licensing terms are considered non-free.

  • Re:I'm pragmatic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:07AM (#33424232) Homepage Journal

    ``I don't care as much about the codecs being open source or closed source - I'm mainly interested in which format offers the higher quality at the same (or lower) bitrate.''

    I, too, care about which format offers the higher quality at the same (or lower) bitrate. But I'm pragmatic enough to not want to have to jump through hoops if I want to install the software on my computer (on whatever OS I happen to be running), fix any bugs that I encounter while using it, or maybe even audit the software. And I don't want to get in trouble with the law over watching or encoding a video.

    If MPEG-LA or any other organization wants to offer a video format that I cannot legally use, or for which a codec that allows me to do all the things I want cannot legally be implemented and distributed, that's fine with me. However, I then won't be using the format. Getting slightly better video quality isn't worth the hassle, annoyance, and security risks of typical "we care more about our anti-piracy measures than about our customers" software. If anyone else does want to use such software, fine by me.

    The only point where this becomes a problem is when we are talking about standardizing on a format. Standardizing on a format that is not free to implement and use is a very bad idea. Not because it cannot be made to work, but because of pragmatic reasons: there will be barriers, and those barriers will hinder implementation and adoption. All the major players including MPEG-LA recognize this. That's why MPEG-LA is offering this "free for the most common uses" licensing: without that, H.264 would be a huge hassle. Similarly, Flash only became as widespread as it is because the player is freely available for the most popular platforms, TrueType won out over Type1 because of better licensing conditions, and free software is all over the software development world because you can use it without having to jump through hoops.

    Ask yourself this: being pragmatic, how much are you willing to pay and how much work are you prepared to do to get to (legally) use H.265, the new and wonderful (and at this point, hypothetic) video format that is even better than H.264? At what point would you, for pragmatic reasons, decide to go with VP12, the (also hypothetic) video format that is almost as good, and free for all to use for any purpose, with free software codecs that you can install with a single click or command?

  • People that smart should be able to play the stock market if they wanted to, for instance

    Stock market shouldn't be a game. It should be what it was originally designed to be: a way for company to raise money for their own development. Not a game, not a pile of cards of companies purchasing each others, not a lottery, etc...

  • by ciaran_o_riordan ( 662132 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @06:10AM (#33424564) Homepage

    The main problem caused by MPEG-LA is that people can't distribute video software. GNU/Linux distros have to worry about distributing software that supports H.264, and developers have to worry about adding support to their apps. Documenting this situation is my hobby horse but this "free" licence" is so limited, I can't find much to write about it. It won't make H.264 safe for standards like HTML5 either.

    They promise not to sue non-commercial distributors of video (no ads allowed on the webpage). That means I'm safe to publish videos of me singing karaoke, but no one was going to sue me for that anyway. The only real case I can think of is public service television, which could put their shows online now without worry, but they'd have to be very careful about not having anything that could be called an ad on their webpage. Is that really the extent of this "free" licence that such a fuss is being made about?

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @06:47AM (#33424756) Journal
    I very much doubt that On2 has any of them. When H.264 was being created, they will have gone through their patents to try to find anything that is covered with the standard and added it to the pool. The more patents they have in the pool, the more money they get from H.264 licensees, and that adds up to a lot of money. They'd have no reason to hold on to patents doing nothing with them if they could put them in the pool and make money from them immediately.
  • Re:Yeah... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:12AM (#33424886)

    Flash & Windows Media are *plugins* in Firefox. Not native implementations.

    Try Again.

    Trouble with h.264 is.... if it becomes a part of html5........ browsers will be expected to have *native* implementation of it.

    Thats something mozilla can't do, because of patents that LA won't allow sub-licensing of.

    H.264 is incompatible with open source. Doesn't mean we can't have a Firefox plugin for it, mush like flash (hopefully having a better quality than flash :) ).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:59AM (#33425116)

    Nope, you only have to file a complaint. Just like copyright complaints.

    And if it's possible for x264 to avoid using MPEGLA patents, then the patents you're licensing are a gyp. Especially since x264 is getting to be a faster and more compliant program than licensed competitors.

    So, go ahead, explain why people are paying for a license they don't have to because x264 does encoding/decoding and doesn't require a license.

    My explanation is that x264 uses the patents but ignores them because

    1) personal use only is not an infringement of patent (else how could you improve on the technology if you couldn't use it without a license?)

    2) software patents are not universal (EPO specifically exclude software from patentability).

  • by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:14AM (#33425574) Journal

    Ah, and when you "pass it to the OS", you need to have paid for and OS from a vendor that has paid the licensing...

    So you can support it only on OSes which have already done so. I've got Windows 7, which has done so. OS X has also done so. If you've got a recent nVidia card, chances are you've got a fully legal and paid-for hardware decoder which can be used just fine under Linux.

    In fact, passing it to the OS, or to whatever local codec subsystem you've got, is a great way to ensure you can take advantage of hardware decoders. Insisting on implementing all this in the browser as a childish political move is a great way to ensure that Firefox will be the last to take advantage of hardware-accelerated WebM, if that ever surfaces.

    Passing it to the OS pretty much ends the legal bullshit, and is the right choice technologically, also. It seems pretty clear that the only reason Firefox refuses to do so is because they don't want h.264 to win, even if it doesn't affect Firefox itself directly.

  • by dave420 ( 699308 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:53AM (#33426074)
    HTML5 has no codecs in it. There is a discussion to try to get the support of one codec in HTML5, but it can't be patent-encumbered, so h.264 is out of the question. Please stop making things up.
  • Re:I'm pragmatic (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Pentium100 ( 1240090 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:58AM (#33426134)

    No, I don't. I live in a country where software patents are not valid.

  • Re:Yeah... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PybusJ ( 30549 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:07PM (#33427078)

    Not really.

    Unless you have an encoder license covering x264 then MPEG-LA still claim you are violating their patents if you use x264 to encode. MPEG-LA don't give out encoder licenses to end users (not even if you offer to pay them), but only to encoder suppliers. Even though I have a licensed H.264 decoder supplied with my OS, it is only licensed to play content created with a licensed encoder. I don't have, and can't obtain, a license to play x264 encoded video. So the MPEG-LA still claim I am violating their patents if I play something you encoded. Both of us _could_ get sued.

    People who want "free as in open source", are not usually interested in free as in I can download some code but don't have patent licenses for it. This announcement has done nothing, nothing at all, to obviate the need to encoder and decoder licenses, this was only about streaming licenses -- yet another license you needed on top of encoder licenses and decoder licenses.

    So x264 is maybe useful for "encoder manufacturers"; they can use its code in their products, if they can find a way to do so under the terms of the GPL[0]. Google use x264 based tools to encode youtube videos, and they have registered themselves as an encoder supplier to get the patent license (even though they only supply themselves). Since they don't distribute the encoder they create, they don't have to comply with the patent clauses in the GPL. Google are about the only people to legally benefit from x264, the rest of us don't have the size/funds for that option.

    You can take the view that you don't care about infringing patents and ignore the MPEG-LA (fine, but in which case this announcement doesn't matter to you), or you do care (in which case this announcement still doesn't allow you to use open source H.264 codecs). There is *nothing* in this announcement for Open Source video users.

    [0] The GPL, which x264 claims it is licensed under says: "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."

  • by alexo ( 9335 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:39PM (#33428216) Journal

    Absent the Law, we are all at the mercy of the powerful. The Law is what gives the little guy some rights, and makes it so he doesn't have to simply and always say "How high?" when someone rich and powerful says, "Jump!"

    Therefore the law must be formulated in such way that it is understandable by the average person.

    Lawyers are supposed to be the people who give the masses access to those rights under the Law.

    Except that they don't give access, they sell it, resulting in "rights" that, according to your reasoning, have to be purchased and are inaccessible to those without means.

    Sure, there are bad apples among lawyers,

    Unfortunately it's the 99% of the lawyers that give the rest a bad name.

    but when the masses start to lose faith in the entire practice, they start to lose the effective underpinnings of their freedom.

    When your "freedom" is measured by your disposable income, you are not free.

    It's been told that America has the finest justice money can buy. Lawyers (currently) exist to perpetuate this system.

  • by gorzek ( 647352 ) <gorzek AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:40PM (#33428238) Homepage Journal

    The point is that Firefox doesn't need to implement any codec whatsoever. Just pass video decoding to the OS, and worry about whether the OS supports the codec in question, be it in hardware or software.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:23AM (#33434134)

    You are an idiot. Others, please don't feed this troll.

Marvelous! The super-user's going to boot me! What a finely tuned response to the situation!