Cisco & H.264

Wed, 30 Oct 2013

Cisco's announcement changes nothing about H.264. It's nothing more than a desperate attempt at grabbing straws. H.264 still patent encumbered. It's still problematic. Cisco doesn't even make an attempt to hide that their motivation is nothing less than getting a patent-encumbered codec selected for use in WebRTC. I urge everyone to ignore it and continue pushing for codecs that are not encumbered with patent problems.

Mozilla has decided to implement support for H.264 in Firefox, since they themselves can use Cisco's software and get the patent license but this patent license doesn't cover indepdent implementations, only that which you get from Cisco. Further more, based on clarifications from Cisco, the royalty free version only comes in a binary form, rendering it non-free. To really be royalty free the patent license must be transferrable to anyone that comes into possession of a copy, regardless of where they got it from. It also needs to apply to both the binary and source versions.

What about sound? H.264 only covers video. Most people probably want to have sound. A clarification from Cisco confirms that their expectation is for people to add support for optional (and patent-encumbered, I might add) codecs on their own. This leaves people encoding video using H.264 open to patent issues from the audio codec side because H.264 is not commonly used with an unencumbered audio codec. Some may point to an earlier announcement from MPEG LA that H.264 encoded internet video that is distributed at no charge won't be charged royalties, but this obviously excludes video that is charged for or that isn't being distributed over the internet. Being royalty free needs to apply to all use cases, not just those that someone else decides they need to do in order to compete with the ones that really are royalty free. Thus, Mozilla's decision is shortsighted because H.264 is not going to be free of patent problems for everyone. Given that patents remain a problem for H.264 I would have preferred Mozilla to take a stronger stand in favor of unencumbered formats.

It's probably worth nothing that this sort stuff didn't start happening until unencumbered formats started making inroads. Perhaps the announcements from MPEG LA and Cisco would never have happened had it not been for competition from unencumbered formats. Also, nothing I've seen obligates Cisco to continue doing this going forward (perhaps one day they'll tire of paying these multi-million dollar royalties) so even if the patent encumbered formats are royalty free (for some limited use cases only) who can say that they will stay that way going forward? If they're able to regain lost ground, patent holders may feel less inclined to make concessions or even discontinue those already granted. It seems similiar to the classic situation where it's free to get you hooked. To avoid this patent licenses must be irrevocable. Formats that are not encumbered with patent problems are the only way to avoid these problems and ensure freedom both now and into the future.