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Good News for HTML5: H.264 Streaming Will Remain Free

Good news for HTML5 proponents: MPEG LA has announced that it will extend its royalty-free license of the H.264 video streaming format for an additional five years. In doing so, the license holder has agreed not to charge for use of the near-ubiquitous H.264 encoding format through 2016.

The move comes after YouTube (s GOOG) and Vimeo (s IACI) rolled out implementations of HTML5 video last month, both of which took advantage of H.264.

Using HTML5, those companies can serve video directly into certain modern browsers without an external plugin like Adobe (s ADBE) Flash or Microsoft (s MSFT) Silverlight. The only problem is that many of the newest browsers don’t support H.264. Users can access HTML5 video encoded in H.264 with Chrome, Safari or Internet Explorer with Google’s ChromeFrame installed, but the format isn’t yet supported by Firefox and Opera. That means that only about 25 percent of users can actually watch HTML5 video encoded in H.264, according to Vimeo.

Mozilla, which makes the Firefox web browser, had shied away from supporting H.264 for fear that MPEG LA might begin charging for streaming once the current license expires at the end of this year. Mozilla chose instead to support video through the Ogg Vorbis encoding format, which isn’t encumbered by licenses. Opera also supports Ogg, while Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has yet to throw its weight behind either format.

Despite the continuation of MPEG LA’s royalty-free licensing plan, don’t expect Firefox to get behind H.264 anytime soon. In response to the news, Mozilla CEO John Lilly tweeted yesterday, “…Regarding that MPEG-LA announce: it’s good they did it, but they sort of had to. But it’s like 5 more years of free to lock you in 4ever.”

38 Responses to “Good News for HTML5: H.264 Streaming Will Remain Free”

  1. This is absolute crap: h264 is not free and therefore cannot “remain free”. They want everybody to jump on the h264 bandwagon and then charge whatever they want once they have ensured that its use has become so widespread that it is, to all intents and purposes, a necessity. Open source codecs are the only codecs that should be employed for Internet video viewing and we, as consumers, should ensure that the big companies understand that this is noon-negociable. Of course, such comments will undoubtedly be drowned out by the waves of reviews and comments lauding the visual display of Flash-free Internet playback, which will continue until credit card numbers are requested, whereupon the crying will start.

  2. pianom4n

    This isn’t what I call good news. If anything it’s horrible news because it will convince more people that using h.264 will be ok. It will GIFs all over again, except 10x worse.

    I’m really hoping Google does something dramatic with On2, like opening VP8 and releasing patches for Gecko and Webkit (re-encoding all of Youtube with Theora would be good to). Google has always been about getting people to use the internet more first; people then search more and Google makes more money. I don’t see why they haven’t come out for Theora unless they’re waiting on On2 to go through (and don’t say Youtube, because everybody knows that they don’t make money on it and that any money they will make will be small compared to search.)

  3. Jon Smirl

    Let’s get everyone addicted with free samples, and then take the price to $50 a stream five years from now after everyone is hooked. That’s pretty much what happened with the mp3 patents.

    • And encoders as well as far as I know – which means you can neither necessarily create nor watch h.264 video unless you or someone else has bribed MPEG-LA for permission to do so.

      As you point out, their stance of not charging royalties until 2016 is merely a promise not to ALSO charge you a THIRD license fee for actually transferring the data you paid to be allowed to encode to someone who paid to be allowed to decode it.

      The patents and dangling threat of a patent lawsiege[1] still makes it difficult for individuals to participate in web video if h.264 is the codec used.

      [1]I like to call it “lawsiege” since the idea is a wealthy corporation can afford to bottle up an opponent with hostile lawyers until their opponent runs out of money to fight and has to give in without getting through the trial.