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Decode this, MPEG LA

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The open-source version of Microsoft's Silverlight is adopting hardware-based decoding for video, a move that will boost multimedia on Linux devices.

Moonlight is adding support for Nvidia cards to offload the work of H.264 and VC1 decoding from the software player to the actual hardware. Nvidia features the Video Decode and Presentation API for Unix (VDPAU) so that the video card - not the software player - does the decoding.

It's a small but significant development.

Offloading should help speed overall performance of any device that uses Nvidia's video cards or the g8 series as it'll be the card rather than the CPU that's doing the processing.

The move should also make it ethically palatable for users running GPL'd Linux such as Debian, Ubuntu, or Red Hat on a PC and legally safer for OEMs building consumer gadgets like Blu-ray DVD players on these Linux distros and Moonlight.

Consumers and - more importantly - OEMs would no longer have to license the proprietary H.264 and VC1 codecs from licensing authority MPEG LA.

Some users of GPL'd software will see such codecs as "unfree" and therefore unusable on their systems.

Makers of things like DVD players, though, would no longer need to pay expensive and on-going royalties to the MPEG LA when building devices, potentially cutting their overheads on systems that have already got a relatively low-cost thanks to use of Linux.

Of course, OEMs could choose not to license the codecs in the first place, but this could land them in hot water should the MPEG LA decide to assert its vice-like grip on the codecs market.

For a look at the complexity, risk, and potential exposure of this situation, just look at what Canonical did last year. The Ubuntu sponsor made media playback and DVD player codecs from Fluendo and Cyberlink available from its online store.

Canonical could not ship codecs in Ubuntu, because Canonical had not licensed them, so it couldn't pass on the rights, while the codecs had been licensed by Fluendo and Cyberlink.

What's still unclear is whether those who download the Fluendo and Cyberlink codecs are allowed to use them, and whether Fluendo and Cyberlink can actually pass on their rights. Fluendo has noted on its site that the codecs it sells are licensed from MPEG LA and Microsoft in addition to Via Licensing, Dolby, and Thomson Fraunhofer.

For its part, Moonlight and its users are covered in their use of codecs like H.264 now found in Silverlight because Microsoft has extended the agreements it already had with organizations like MPEG LA for Silverlight and Windows Media Player to Moonlight and its users.

That agreement, though, only applies to Moonlight users who download the player from Novell's site. Coverage becomes grayer for OEMs that pick Moonlight if they begin shipping devices with Moonlight pre-installed. When that happens, the MPEG LA could come-a-knocking with a demand for retrospective royalties.

Turning to the hardware can also help cover Moonlight if at some point in the future Microsoft revokes the coverage it's provided. That could happen, say, once Silverlight becomes broadly established and Microsoft decides it no longer needs Moonlight to seed the market for Silverlight.

There's no date on when Moonlight will get Nvidia decoding, but project leader Miguel de Icaza told us: "Speed is the driver." ®

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