Networking titan Cisco Systems says it will open source its implementation of the H.264 video codec and release it as a free binary download.
This could make it easier for open-source projects to incorporate real-time streaming video into their software as the company has promised to cover the codec's patent-licensing fees.
"Cisco will not pass on our MPEG LA licensing costs for this module, and based on the current licensing environment, this will effectively make H.264 free for use in WebRTC," Cisco's Rowan Trollope said in a blog post on Wednesday.
Generally, any project that implements H.264 video must pay royalties to MPEG LA, the licensing body that manages the tangle of patents covering all aspects of streaming digital video.
That has led to a schism between web browser makers, with Google, in particular, choosing to forego H.264 support in favor of its homegrown VP8 codec, which it believes offers developers more favorable intellectual-property-licensing terms. (Others disagree.)
Some workarounds do exist. For example, Microsoft developed a plugin that allows Chrome to display H.264 video on Windows systems after Google, as mentioned above, announced it will drop support for the codec (although the Adobe Flash plugin will still handle the data). Getting every browser across every platform to support a common video codec has remained a challenge, particularly where free software is concerned.
This situation has been a stumbling block for WebRTC, the Worldwide Web Consortium's new standard for two-way real-time audio and video communications, because obviously getting two browsers to talk to each other requires them both to speak the same language.
According to Mozilla Foundation CTO Brendan Eich, Cisco's move should soon make it possible for any application to decode H.264 video without worrying about licensing implications and without paying any additional royalties to MPEG LA.
"We are grateful for Cisco's contribution, and we will add support for Cisco's OpenH264 binary modules to Firefox soon," Eich wrote on Wednesday. "These modules will be usable by downstream distributions of Firefox, as well as by any other project. In addition, we will work with Cisco to put the OpenH264 project on a sound footing and to ensure that it is governed well."
Cisco says it plans to release its H.264 stack under the BSD license, which will make it compatible with free and commercial software projects alike.
But just because Cisco's H.264 modules and code will be available to others at no cost doesn't mean the codec is no longer patent-encumbered. The only thing making the free version possible is Cisco's willingness to eat all of the patent licensing costs itself.
"Of course, this is not a not a complete solution," Eich wrote. "In a perfect world, codecs, like other basic Internet technologies such as TCP/IP, HTTP, and HTML, would be fully open and free for anyone to modify, recompile, and redistribute without license agreements or fees."
To that end, he said, Mozilla is working on Daala, a new open-source video codec that it hopes will not just be unencumbered by patents but will also "leapfrog H.265 and VP9" in terms of video quality.
In the meantime, Eich said, future versions of Firefox will automatically download and install whichever version of the Cisco H.264 codec is appropriate for the platform they are running on, unless the user chooses to disable that feature. The first such Firefox release is expected to ship in early 2014. ®