Cisco releases free and libre H.264 code for browsers

«Cisco, actively involved in the development of WebRTC, has stepped forward with a possible solution. The company is releasing an open source, BSD-licensed implementation of the H.264 specification. It’s also releasing a compiled, freely downloadable binary version of that same source code. Cisco will pay the license fees for that binary module, and won’t pass that fee on to end users.» Ars Technica.

Sounds great yeah? – Then why aren’t I celebrating?

Because it makes harder for truly free and open codecs to get traction, and even survive.

This just makes the problems with H.264 even bigger. We have yet one less reason not to use it, which means that it’s use will be even more widespread, over the truly free and libre¹ video codec VP8, but the license fee problems actually remains the same.

«Cisco will pay the license fees for that binary module». And they offer the source code under a BSD license. But – if you compile this source code, and distributes it yourself, you’re still breaking the codec license, and Cisco won’t pay your fees. So the only thing you can use this source code for is to check that it’s not malicious, and hopefully, when you build it, the binary gets a signature that matches the signature for Ciscos provided binaries, so you can verify that it’s been built from the same source code. But that’s actually pretty unlikely, too.

This is one of the many hollow victories for FLOSS, that actually down the road will hurt free software pretty badly. Rather than going for a truly free and libre alternative, the pill gets just sugared enough for a lot of us to swallow, so we’ll throw our principals over board, and go for the less free alternative, because it’s easy.

We already have open and free implementations of H.264, and have had so for long. It’s called x264, and is the best H.264 encoder/decoder, and have been so for quite some time. The problems with H.264 lies not in the license on the implementation, but the license on the patents and the technology.

Then, why is Mozilla going for the Cisco codec?

Well, that’s the point. Firefox has been unable to use x264, because that makes them a distributor of the H.264 implementation, which means that they’d have to pay licensing fees to MPEG LA, for every download. With this codec from Cisco, they can, if they treat it as a plugin, let Cisco distribute it, and then Cisco will pay the fees.
For the user this is a great solution, and Mozillas focus is on user experience. But it still means that Mozilla can’t tweak the implementation, or make it available to users on platforms that Cisco hasn’t made binaries for. The article only mentiones Windows XP as the platform this would help (Vista and later has H.264 support from the OS). I assume that Cisco also makes binaries for Linux, but I haven’t verified that yet

¹) I know the Ars Technica refers to VP8 as «Google’s proprietary—but zero cost—VP8 codec». But that’s just plain wrong.