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Mozilla shrugs off 'forever free' H.264 codec license

Uh, will H.264 even be relevant in 4 years?

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Update: This story has been updated to show that the MPEG-LA's license change applies to free video broadcasts, not applications that encode and decode video.

Mozilla vice president of engineering Mike Shaver has questioned the importance of the forever free H.264 license introduced this morning by the MPEG-LA, the organization that oversees the web video codec on behalf of patent holders such as Apple and Microsoft.

The patent-pool organization now says that for the H.264 license used by free video broadcasts, it will continue to waive royalty fees through the entire life of the license. Previously, the license was royalty-free only through the end of 2015. The move is an apparent answer to Google's new WebM media format, which was open sourced under a royalty-free license this spring, but Shaver doesn't think the move makes all that much difference.

With WebM in play, he's, well, not sure if H.264 will even matter in four years.

"The MPEG-LA announcement doesn't change anything for the next four years, since this promise was already made through 2014," he says in the statement shared with the The Reg. "Given that IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] has already started accepting submissions for patents in the replacement H.265 standard, and the rise of unencumbered formats like WebM, it is not clear if H.264 will still be relevant in 2014."

It should also be noted that the MPEG-LA's license change does not apply to H.264 products and services other than free video broadcasts.

Mozilla and Opera have backed WebM, saying they won't use royalty-encumbered codecs in their browsers, while Apple and Microsoft have stuck with H.264. And this isn't likely to change anytime soon — though Microsoft has said it will allow IE9 netizens to use WebM if they install it on their own machines.

Though WebM uses a royalty-free license, the MPEG-LA has said it's "looking into" a patent pool that would challenge its royalty-free-ness. And apparently, this jibes with the thinking of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But Google is confident that WebM can stand up to pressure from patent holders — and clearly, Mike Shaver is too. ®

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