H.264 licensing revisited and explored

I’ve got a backlog of stuff here, so some of these might be a bit short.

First up, revisiting video codec patents, which I originally wrote about in February.

A recent post on librevideo.org was also written after Ben Schwartz’s post “No, you can’t do that with H.264” as mine was. From the article:

In the interest of clarifying the ambiguous claims regarding the licensing terms of using the AVC/H.264 video technology, Libre Video has taken the time over the past few weeks to contact the MPEG-LA directly, the licensing authority responsible for administering the patent pool for the H.264 specification. We have asked them various questions related to what we feel are important issues surrounding the terms under which normal people are permitted to use hardware products that they have purchased and the resulting multimedia content created with them.

Obviously, there is way too much to quote here, but the important conclusions to draw from Libre Video’s correspondence with MPEG-LA are:

  1. The simplicity of the analog media era where one buys, say, a VHS tape deck and can pretty much do what one wishes with it are over. Software patents turn what should be simple tasks into a legal minefield ready to explode under those that least expect legal obstacles.
  2. Even professional products do not include a professional H.264 license. This includes, say, Final Cut Pro.
  3. The AVC licensing only applies to an end product, and can be avoided by transcoding the video to, say, Ogg Theora or the upcoming VP8/WebM.
  4. The patent licenses required to legally decode H.264 make it impossible to write a free software (GPL) H.264 decoder. This is most unfortunate on the part of MPEG-LA and the companies that have chosen to embrace this standard.

I’m disappointed in MPEG-LA and the companies which formed it. This is perhaps the biggest step backward for user freedoms since the DMCA; many otherwise law-abiding free software users will wind up breaking the law just to convert their H.264 video to formats like Ogg Theora.

I propose the following solution:

  1. For personal use/non-profit videos, MPEG-LA waives the royalties on software-based decoding of H.264 for the purposes of conversion to another video format.
  2. Apple, Microsoft, and other developers voluntarily rename video editing products with the word “Pro” or “Professional” in the name (such as Final Cut Pro) to a new name not including the words “professional” or “pro” and putting a prominent disclaimer on the box: “The H.264 decoder and encoder are licensed for personal use only. Use of the H.264 video format allowed by this software product may require additional licenses from the MPEG Licensing Authority (MPEG-LA).”

These are the fair things to do. The first would make the H.264 decoder in ffmpeg legal for most of its uses. Maybe MPEG-LA would need to raise their royalties to compensate for “lost” revenue. I have news for MPEG-LA: many of the users of ffmpeg would never pay you one red cent anyway. A few are effective scofflaws, but most are easily convinced that having to break the law to convert their home movies to another digital video format without paying even more money is at best ludicrous and at worst insane.

The second just makes sense. This, of course, is exactly why the companies in question will never do it. But that’s another rant for another day.