by Swapnil Bhartiya

Open source, open standard, royalty-free media codecs? That’s the promise of the newly formed Alliance for Open Media

Sep 02, 2015
Open Source

One Codec to rule them all, One Codec to find them, One Codec to bring them all, and in the multimedia bind them.

Video codecs are currently a mess, thanks to patents and licensing models that are complicated, confusing and often expensive. Many open source projects can’t afford the licensing fee, or bundle non-free codecs due to patents.

Now we have a ray of hope: Seven Internet giants (Amazon, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla and Netflix) have come together to form the Alliance for Open Media, “an open-source project that will develop next-generation media formats, codecs and technologies in the public interest,” according to the press release.

From the press release:

The group’s initial focus is to offer a next-generation video format that is:

  • Interoperable and open;
  • Optimized for the web;
  • Scalable to any modern device at any bandwidth;
  • Designed with a low computational footprint and optimized for hardware;
  • Capable of consistent, highest-quality, real-time video delivery; and
  • Flexible for both commercial and non-commercial content, including user-generated content.

The Alliance will work as a Joint Development Foundation project.

“One of the biggest challenges in developing open standards in a field like video codecs is figuring out how to review the patents. The Alliance provides a venue for us to share the legal legwork without having to worry about it being used against us down the road. That distributes the load, allows us to innovate faster and cheaper, and gives everyone more confidence that we are really producing a royalty-free codec,” said David Bryant of Mozilla in a blog post.

Code will be released under the Apache 2.0 licence and operate under W3C patent rules, which means there won’t be any royalties “both for the codec implementation and for any patents on the codec itself,” wrote Bryant.

What’s wrong with current status of media codecs?

One of the most popular codecs, H.264/AVC, is controlled by MPEG LA, and manufacturers need to pay a fee to use the codec. Its successor, H.265/HEVC (aka High Efficiency Video Code) is in works and it’s going to cost even more.

The licence fees are paid by those who manufacture devices, write software or offer services that need video capabilities, including ‘every’ device, software or service that deals with multimedia — whether it be mobile phones, software or services like Netflix.

It’s virtually everyone who deals with multimedia — except the end users.

Due to complications regarding patents and licensing, open source projects like Mozilla’s Firefox can’t distribute such codecs. Cisco, one of the members of MPEG-LA, did offer a binary for H.264 that could be downloaded and used by projects like Firefox without paying any licensing fee; Cisco was paying for the patent licensing to MPEG LA.

Though it was a great gesture by Cisco, it was not a permanent solution. The industry needs an open standard, open source video codec. Period.

There was a glimmer of hope a few years ago when Google bought a company called On2 that created an efficient codec. Google released their codecs — VP8 — as open source and it was good enough to replace H.264. But the codec, as expected, didn’t get wider adoption.

The formation of the Alliance for Open Media may finally change things for the better.