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This pesky HTML5 video codec issue

15th Dec 2007

The discussion about what video codec to require as a baseline for the <video> element in HTML5 has hit an annoying deadlock. Taking into account the needs and wants of all players, the spec requires a video codec that:

  • does not require patent licence fees (since that would make it incompatible with open source)
  • has already been implemented by Apple and other big players (since they don't wish to increase their patent attack surface)
  • that is good enough to actually be useful (for obvious reasons)

There is currently absolutely no codec which satisfies all three of the above. The second one is the main bind: the set of codecs that have already been implemented, even if we just take Apple as an example, is a very small, closed set. They've implemented the MPEG4 codec H.264. H.264 is currently encumbered by patents that require licence fees. Therefore the union of all of the above sets is the empty set.

It seems to me that the only tenable solution to this stalemate is to somehow persuade the MPEG-LA to allow at least one of the H.264 profiles to be implemented freely. This is largely a political problem, as those who are represented by the MPEG-LA will need to be convinced that there is some useful business reason to do so. The best reason I can come up with right now is that it might allow them to "upsell" adopters to the more advanced profiles, though I really don't know enough about video codecs to understand what most of the features of each profile even mean.

I do find it sad that an organisation has actually gone to the effort of making available a codec that is, to the best of current knowledge, unencumbered by patents -- Ogg Theora -- and yet it's still unusable due to the current mess that is the patent system.


  • Codec..

    What the problem of the following solution?

    Use one of the open source codecs as the min implementation to support and provide a reference implementation. So e.g. Apple is able to reuse this (they did this already with WebKit)

    As an option allow standard codecs such as H.264 or other.

    The result, all have to support the open source solution which is available for free and can reuse their own as optional.

    By ext_74017 at 06:50 am on 16th Dec 2007
    • Re: Codec..

      Apple does not want to support Ogg Theora because they are worried that there will be submarine patents related to it. They have already taken the necessary risks implementing MPEG4 across their product line, so they consider any additional codecs to be an unnecessary extra legal risk.

      While you could argue that they should just suck it up because Mozilla Firefox can't possibly implement MPEG4 and remain open source, Apple seems pretty adamant that it is not going to implement Theora under any circumstances; if there isn't going to be a consistent base plugin across all major browsers then the whole thing is a waste of time.

      By Martin Atkins at 08:26 pm on 16th Dec 2007