Firefox, YouTube, Video and the Ethics of Codecs?

By HTMLGoodies Staff

Lately there has been a lot of controversy over the recent announcements by Mozilla, YouTube and Vimeo about their support of HTML5 video. The controversy lies in the codec used to display that video, and how supporting one codec over another could unravel the fabric the web is made of.

To get to the point, it all boils down to licensing rights. YouTube announced that they were using the H.264 video codec to support HTML5 video. This was soon followed by an announcement by Vimeo, another video site, that they will also support HTML5 using the H.264 codec. Apple's Safari is also using the H.264 codec. Dailymotion and Wikipedia have gone with support for Ogg Theora, an open source video codec. Mozilla hasn't settled on which codec they will support, and Google's Chrome supports both codecs.

Remember the controversy when Unisys started asking for licensing revenue for the GIF format based on compression patents it held? The GIF format had been used by sites online for years, but they didn't start asking for revenue until 1999. By supporting H.264, YouTube, Vimeo and Safari are solidifying the use of H.264's in HTML5 video. The Unisys debacle will pale in comparison to the issues that will arrise if this happens with HTML5 video.

While it may be okay to use the H.264 video codec for the time being, at some point companies will have to start licensing the H.264 codec from the industry group that owns the MPEG-LA codec, and this will mean big bucks. Huge, gigantic bucks. And that spells trouble for the web.

There are two sides to this argument: one group feels like the web should be freely shared and distributed, in all forms of the media that makes up the web, while the other group feels that if the media of the web is free for all, nobody will be able to create a viable business around the creation and distribution of that media.

The W3C, who is still busy working out the HTML5 standards, believe that the web is free, and so should the technology that is used to produce the web. With the inclusion of the video tag in HTML5, they did it under the assumption that a single, royalty-free standard codec would be accepted and used. The Ogg Theora open source video codec could have been the codec they were looking for, but companies such as Google were against it, stating that its performance lacked, and that if everyone used the codec, bandwidth from video usage would cripple the internet as we know it.

Hogwash. As Mozilla contributor Christopher Blizzard recently stated in his blog, "These moves by Google and Vimeo (and before either of them, DailyMotion) show that things are changing for the better, and faster than I think anyone could have imagined. The players from Google and Vimeo do present a pretty serious problem, though. Each of these require a proprietary H.264 codec to be able to view them. These codecs aren't compatible with the royalty-free web standards that the rest of the Web is built on. The fact that they are being so unabashedly hyped along with the new darling of the Web -- HTML 5 -- means that most people don't understand that something very dangerous is taking place behind the scenes."

Will the web remain free, or will it become like the Napster we know today, a pay-per-view medium that places money before artistic expression and freedom. This is a very valid question in these times, especially when companies such as the New York Times recently announced that users will no longer be able to access their content for free--it will be subscription-based. Is that the web we will all be faced with in the near future?

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