The MPEG Licensing Association will no longer charge royalties for use of its H.264 codec, when it's put online for free.
Since the group already had a moratorium on such fees until 2015 the practical impact of this is minimal.
But the business impact could be large, if it decreases interest in WebM.
H.264 is now free as in beer, as opposed to WebM's open format aimed at HTML5. (Free Beer from Denmark has a royalty-free recipe, and was enjoyed at the 2008 FSCONS launch party. Image from Digital-Rights.net.)
It's not free for everyone. Those who charge for their video, whether it's a service like Hulu, a Blu-Ray disc company, or Apple's iTunes, which wants to charge 99 cents to see shows from free TV, will still pay. (If you're charging for free beer it's no longer free to you, is the idea.)
And there, MPEG LA is still spreading the FUD, claiming members of its association hold patents that would cover Google's VP8, the heart of WebM, and any other video codec programmers might seek to create.
The issue of free as in freedom, in other words, remains, subject to litigation. Whether MPEG LA holds patents on some specific mousetrap designs, or the whole idea of catching a mouse, has yet to be determined.
It is within this cone of uncertainty that videographers now walk. The H.264 codec has been around for a long time, and while WebM offers freedom, that's merely a declaration that has yet to be tested on a courtroom battlefield.
There is one other issue that bears notice here, namely HTML5. MPEG LA's royalty scheme has long made it inappropriate for use as a Web standard, which by its nature wants to be royalty free. But now H.264 is royalty free, and defended by a moat of lawyers.
The current HTML5 standards document includes support code for H.264, MPEG 4 and Theora. It does not specify a format, although the group wants to specify one. WebM was created as a project that could be specified, being complete and free as in freedom.
Will free as in beer trump it?