free as in smokescreen

The web is full of headlines today like this one from MacRumors: “MPEG LA Declares H.264 Standard Permanently Royalty-Free”. It would be great if they were accurate, but unfortunately they very much are not.

What MPEG-LA announced is that their current moratorium on charging fees for the transmission of H.264 content, previously extended through 2015 for uses that don’t charge users, is now permanent. You still have to pay for a license for H.264 if you want to make things that create it, consume it, or your business model for distributing it is direct rather than indirect.

What they’ve made permanently free is distribution of content that people have already licensed to encode, and will need a license to decode. This is similar to Nikon announcing that they will not charge you if you put your pictures up on Flickr, or HP promising that they will never charge you additionally if you photocopy something that you printed on a LaserJet. (Nikon and HP are used in the preceding examples without their consent, and to my knowledge have never tried anything as ridiculous as trying to set license terms on what people create with their products.)

H.264 has not become materially more free in the past days. The promise made by the MPEG-LA was already in force until 2015, has no effect on those consuming or producing H.264 content, and is predicated on the notion that they should be controlling mere copying of bits at all! Unfortunately, H.264 is no more suitable as a foundational technology for the open web than it was last year. Perhaps it will become such in the future — Mozilla would very much welcome a real royalty-free promise for H.264 — but only the MPEG-LA can make that happen.