Toll Road

The good news: a lot of “broadcast” Internet video is free forever on AVC and H.264. The bad news: everything else still costs money, not much else changes, and you can expect the next battle will be a protracted patent debate. Whee! Photo (CC-BY) Bill Jacobus.

MPEG LA, the group that holds the patent pool for AVC (best known for the H.264 codec) and licenses said pool to third parties, has extended its royalty-free license for free, end-user playback of its video. That extends a deadline from what had been December 15, 2015 to an indefinite date, and it removes the “doomsday” scenario painted by some opponents of the H.264 license, in which all Internet video suddenly ceases to be royalty-free. Read the full announcement from MPEG LA:

MPEG LA’s AVC License Will Not Charge Royalties for Internet Video That Is Free to End Users Through Life of License

So, game over? Out with WebM? Stick with H.264 forever? Actually, not quite.

First of all, even if you’re talking only playback and only free videos, this license extension doesn’t cover all use of video on the Internet. That’s “Internet Broadcast AVC Video.” On-demand videos are excluded.

Beyond the “free” and “Internet” qualifications, you get into even more royalty fees. Let’s let MPEG LA explain that in their own words:

MPEG LA’s AVC Patent Portfolio License provides coverage for devices that decode and encode AVC video, AVC video sold to end users for a fee on a title or subscription basis and free television video services. AVC video is used in set-top boxes, media player and other personal computer software, mobile devices including telephones and mobile television receivers, Blu-ray Disc™ players and recorders, Blu-ray video optical discs, game machines, personal media player devices and still and video cameras.

So that means everything from Hulu on-demand video to the Firefox Web browser to video editing software still has to pay fees. That, in turn, means the free and open source community – and the Mozilla Foundation – are in the same boat they were before the announcement. And that means Google’s truly free WebM video format remains important.

The bigger question, I think, is whether WebM will remain patent-free. Google is embroiled with high-profile patent battles with Apple and Oracle over Android. MPEG LA could be next. There’s already word that MPEG LA may want to assemble a patent pool around WebM; Steve Jobs already made threatening noises about Theora, so it’s possible we could see action from Apple, too.

That says to me that the open video movement, led by Open Video Alliance, may need to broaden its arguments beyond tools and codecs and start talking about patent reform. After all, it’s not even necessarily that you lose a patent battle, so much as these things can be tied up for courts in years and cast a shadow over perfectly good tools.

And, sorry, I’m still with Mozilla. For a truly open video tag on the Web, you need an open, patent-free format, and right now the best bet – for all its flaws – is WebM.

More good analysis from Ars Technica, who are wise enough not to immediately assume this is a big victory for H.264 on the Web:
MPEG LA counters Google WebM with permanent royalty moratorium