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Apple-supported H.264 standard gains free license for Internet video use

The MPEG Licensing Authority has announced that it will indefinitely extend royalty-free Internet broadcasting licensing of its H.264 video codec to end users, erasing a key advantage of Google's WebM rival and cementing Apple's preferred H.264 as the video format for modern HTML5 video on the web.

The MPEG LA manages licensing of the patent pool for H.264 video compression for a variety of companies that have jointly contributed the intellectual property behind the standard, a group that includes Apple.

While anyone can license H.264 under non-discriminatory terms, free software advocates have condemned the use of commercially licensed video codecs on the grounds that it forces web content into a form that requires licensing fees to play back (or alternatively requires the use of non-licensed code and the legal quandary that involves).

Apple and H.264

MPEG LA commonly refers to H.264 video as AVC (Advanced Video Codec); the video standard is also known as MPEG-4 Part 10. While Apple calls the related MPEG audio codec AAC (Advanced Audio Codec), it consistently refers to MPEG's AVC video standard as H.264.

Apple leveraged the popularity of iTunes and iPod to quickly make AAC the successor to MP3 audio in iTunes for commercial content; the company then subsequently standardized upon H.264 soon after that standard was released, aggressively pushing it as the format used for commercial video downloads and rentals in iTunes, and supporting it as the primary video standard supported by the iPod, iPhone, and other iOS devices for both commercial and free video (including video podcasts, iTunes U, and user-created videos).

For Apple, the licensing fees involved with AAC and H.264 are insignificant because the benefits of H.264 (including its state of the art technical sophistication and broad support for efficient hardware decoding) far outweigh the licensing costs. Apple's status as a commercial developer also prevents it from sharing the ideological and financial aversion free software projects have with commercial codecs.

Mozilla's Ogg War against H.264

In contrast, free software advocates have worried that the MPEG LA would begin charging unreasonable fees from Internet broadcasters to license H.264 video for use on the web beginning in 2015, when the authority's existing "free for end users" license was set to expire.

This argument was originally used to induce support for alternative codecs available for royalty-free use, including Ogg Vobis for audio and Ogg Theora for video. Mozilla and others even petitioned the working group for HTML5 to make Ogg Theora the standard codec for web video in order to ensure that users of its free browser would be able to view web videos without Mozilla needing to subsidize the inclusion of H.264 support, or requiring its users to obtain a codec themselves.

Google made waves earlier this year after it acquired On2 and released its VP8 codec under the name WebM, providing a more sophisticated alternative to Ogg Theora that had the same royalty-free licensing. Apple and other commercial developers rejected WebM because the codec is not supported in hardware (and therefore not efficiently playable on mobile devices), and because WebM is widely believed to include technology patented by MPEG-4 stakeholders, making it a potential minefield for commercial developers with deep pockets.

Now that the MPEG LA has committed to royalty-free web licensing for H.264 throughout the life of the license, Mozilla has changed its tune to suggest the the future threat of H.264 licensing is irrelevant because by 2015 there will be a new H.265 standard emerging, and that royalty free alternatives like WebM already exist.

Mozilla continues to refer to H.264 as "royalty encumbered," but the MPEG LA has also threatened to hit WebM users with patent claims, making all codecs that use modern video techniques "royalty encumbered."

Web video standards war likely to continue

Apple has pressured the MPEG LA to keep licensing affordable in the past, originally holding up support for MPEG-4 in QuickTime until the authority agreed to reasonable licensing terms. A combination of pressure from Apple and the competitive threat from Google's WebM likely prompted the group to officially agree not to impose any future licensing restrictions on the free web applications of H.264.

Despite the move however, Google, Mozilla and Opera appear set to continue to push WebM as a competing standard to H.264 for web video, even though WebM is not intended to serve as a mobile codec, nor is it aimed at high end applications such as Blu-Ray.

In particular, Google's support for WebM has threatened to derail its use of H.264 within YouTube, a move which could potentially result in making the company's vast video repository incompatible with Apple's iOS devices, which only support MPEG-4 codecs including H.264. That prospect was far less likely before the company aimed its Android platform as a direct competitor to Apple's mobile iOS devices.

However, most other web video vendors (including Brightcove and Vimeo) have migrated their offerings from proprietary Adobe Flash video to support H.264 playback specifically in order to support Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. After an initial move toward H.264 from Flash, Google now appears most interested in voicing its support for Flash and WebM, neither of which are capable or optimized for playback on Apple's iOS devices.

Currently however, Google continues to support iOS-compatible H.264 video playback in YouTube, and any change in support for H.264 would seemingly be untenable because of the demand for H.264 video from mobile devices that can't currently support either Flash or WebM (which include not just Apple's iOS products, but nearly all existing mobile devices).

Google's Chrome browser also supports H.264 video playback, as the company (like Apple) is not financially burdened by H.264 licensing fees, even in its free products. That means if Mozilla and Opera continue to push for WebM and do not support H.264, their users will likely just move to free alternatives (Chrome, Apple's Safari, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer) that do in order to be able to play back H.264 video content on the web.