H.264 Is Royalty-Free: Will it Become the HTML5 Video Standard?

Craig Buckler
Craig Buckler

MPEG LA, the group that licenses the H.264/AVC codec, has announced that web streaming of video files encoded using the format is free. The group had previously stated it would remain royalty-free until 2016, but that deadline has been lifted. MPEG LA have not given specific reasons for the change, but the arrival of free codecs such as WebM would have influenced their decision. The big question: how will this affect HTML5 video? Although the HTML5 specification includes a <video> tag for native browser playback, it doesn’t specify a codec…

  • Google, Mozilla and Opera support Ogg Theora, Ogg Vorbis and are introducing WebM in new builds. They had refused to support H.264 because the patent could have imposed licensing fees for the vendor or users.
  • Apple’s Safari browser uses any codec supported by Quicktime, but H.264 is the most common format. Their mobile devices include H.264 hardware decoding to ensure video playback remains smooth. Apple is the only vendor yet to embrace WebM — it should work on a Mac with the codec installed, but it won’t work on their mobile devices.
  • Microsoft IE9 supports H.264 and any codec installed on the user’s PC. That includes WebM, but it won’t be distributed with Windows or the browser.
The codec chaos affects web developers wanting to adopt native video. To ensure cross-browser video playback, you must encode clips in three formats: Ogg Theora/Vorbis (or eventually WebM), MP4 H.264 and Flash video for older browsers. Until now, I expected WebM to become the ‘standard’ HTML5 video codec. Apple would have stood alone as the only vendor without support for the format, but iPhone and iPad users don’t have Flash — they are already used to a video-less web. But could the MPEG LA announcement flip the industry on it’s head? Are Mozilla and Opera free to add H.264 support? Google may be backing WebM but there are few reasons to prevent them adding H.264 to Chrome. Would H.264 finally become the single most reliable HTML5 video format? Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I doubt it. H.264 only remains free at the point of delivery — when you’re viewing a video. The initial encoding, server technology, and browser decoding software incur a royalty payment to MPEG LA. Even if a vendor pays for the decoder, H.264 could not be implemented directly within an open source product because the source must be freely available to anyone. Licensing issues arise for Mozilla Firefox, Google Chromium and Linux distributions. By contrast, manufacturers can add WebM to video encoding software, server solutions, operating systems and browsers without restrictions or royalty payments. Assuming it’s easy to install the codec on Windows, a significant proportion of web users should be able to view WebM videos by this time next year. Web developers don’t want to waste time, money and bandwidth supporting multiple video formats. While I welcome the H.264 announcement, the license probably remains too restrictive for the open web. WebM has potential, but support will remain patchy for many months. If you only want to encode your video once, there’s only one technology which currently offers reliable video playback in most browsers — Flash.

Frequently Asked Questions about H.264 Video Standard

What is the H.264 video standard and why is it important?

The H.264 video standard, also known as Advanced Video Coding (AVC), is a widely used video compression standard. It is crucial because it allows for high-quality video streaming over the internet, even on limited bandwidth. The H.264 standard achieves this by significantly reducing the amount of data needed to represent video, without compromising on the quality of the video.

How does H.264 video encoding work?

H.264 video encoding works by compressing video files to reduce their size without significantly affecting their quality. It uses a method called ‘block-oriented motion-compensation-based codec’, which divides the video into a sequence of frames and each frame into blocks. These blocks are then compared and the differences are encoded, resulting in a smaller file size.

What are the benefits of using H.264 video standard?

The H.264 video standard offers several benefits. It provides high-quality video at lower bit rates, making it ideal for streaming videos on the internet. It also supports resolutions up to 8192×4320, making it suitable for high-definition video. Additionally, it is widely supported by many devices and platforms, making it a versatile choice for video encoding.

Is H.264 video standard royalty-free?

The H.264 video standard is not entirely royalty-free. While it is free for end-users to watch H.264 encoded videos, commercial entities that distribute H.264 encoded content may be required to pay royalties. However, the licensing terms can be complex and vary depending on the use case.

What is the cost of H.264 license?

The cost of an H.264 license can vary depending on the use case. For example, a company that distributes H.264 encoded content may be required to pay a royalty fee. It’s recommended to consult with a licensing expert or the MPEG LA, the organization that handles H.264 licensing, for the most accurate information.

How does H.264 compare to other video standards?

H.264 is often compared favorably to other video standards due to its efficiency and versatility. It provides high-quality video at lower bit rates, supports a wide range of resolutions, and is widely supported by many devices and platforms. However, other newer standards like H.265 or VP9 may offer even better compression efficiency.

What are the technical requirements for using H.264?

The technical requirements for using H.264 can vary depending on the specific use case. However, in general, you would need a device or platform that supports H.264 decoding, and sufficient bandwidth to stream or download the H.264 encoded video.

Can I use H.264 for commercial purposes?

Yes, you can use H.264 for commercial purposes. However, depending on the nature of your use, you may be required to pay a royalty fee. It’s recommended to consult with a licensing expert or the MPEG LA for the most accurate information.

What is the future of H.264 video standard?

While H.264 remains a popular choice for video encoding, newer standards like H.265 or VP9 are gaining traction due to their improved compression efficiency. However, due to its wide support and established presence, H.264 is likely to remain relevant for some time.

Where can I find more information about H.264 licensing?

For the most accurate and up-to-date information about H.264 licensing, it’s recommended to consult with the MPEG LA, the organization that handles H.264 licensing. They can provide detailed information about the licensing terms and costs.