May 3rd, 2010
Our recent post generated many comments and questions. The discussion of intellectual property rights is complex and invites many different points of view. This is a good opportunity to talk through the certainty and uncertainty relative to our goals for IE9 from Microsoft’s point of view.
Developers have consistently conveyed that they want certainty and predictability in the underlying browser platform. We want to deliver a great HTML5 experience in IE9 with great certainty. The goal of certainty informs a lot of choices, such as which of the many standards still under construction we’ll pursue. Browser developers have to make decisions like this all the time.
For many reasons, H.264 video offers a more certain path than other video formats and does so in a way that delivers a great HTML5 experience for developers and end-users. First and most important, we think it is the best available video codec today for HTML5 for our customers. Relative to alternatives, H.264 maintains strong hardware support in PCs and mobile devices as well as a breadth of implementation in consumer electronics devices around the world, excellent video quality, scale of existing usage, availability of tools and content authoring systems, and overall industry momentum – each an important factor that contributes to our point of view.
H.264 also provides the best certainty and clarity with respect to legal rights from the many companies that have patents in this area. The rights for implementations of the H.264 standard (see this Wikipedia article about the standardization process) are managed by MPEG-LA as part of a program that has been in place for many years. This long-standing licensing program for a codec that is in broad usage today in the industry provides a stable system from which we can support our customers. As experts will note, there is never complete certainty in an area like this one.
Some comments asked for examples to support the statement in the previous post about “The rights to other codecs are often less clear, as has been described in the press.” One comment linked to a Streaming Media article; other examples are easy to find.
Intellectual property is a complex topic. As it’s not an engineering topic and this is an engineering blog, the remarks here are by definition limited. On the topic of whether one person’s codec does or doesn’t use someone else’s intellectual property, the only opinion that ultimately matters is a court’s. Many people seem to assume that availability of source code under an open source license implies that there are no additional costs, or that the code has properly secured necessary intellectual property rights from all rightful owners. Our experience and the experience of others indicate otherwise, and the web standards groups have discussed this issue as well. For other codecs, it’s not clear today how the rights will be determined for commercial scenarios and what the costs will be. By virtue of existing commercial use in a wide variety of products implemented by a large number of companies, H.264 minimizes uncertainty for consumers and developers.
Several comments speculated about Microsoft’s financial interest in the codec. (Microsoft participates in MPEG-LA with many other companies.) Microsoft pays into MPEG-LA about twice as much as it receives back for rights to H.264. Much of what Microsoft pays in royalties is so that people who buy Windows (on a new PC from an OEM or as a packaged product) can just play H.264 video or DVD movies. Microsoft receives back from MPEG-LA less than half the amount for the patent rights that it contributes because there are many other companies that provide the licensed functionality in content and products that sell in high volume. Microsoft pledged its patent rights to this neutral organization in order to make its rights broadly available under clear terms, not because it thought this might be a good revenue stream. We do not foresee this patent pool ever producing a material revenue stream, and revenue plays no part in our decision here.
There were many questions about royalties, and a lot of speculation in the comments about licenses and payments. The majority of H.264 video content on the web today is royalty-free. MPEG has said that individuals can create video files in the H.264 format and distribute them and play them over the internet for non-commercial purposes without further obligation on licensed platforms like Windows. We are aware that this commitment is set to expire in 2016, but fully expect to commit to supporting the extension of this license and associated terms beyond that date. In general, distributing encoders or decoders or offering sophisticated pay-for-video requires a license from MPEG-LA. Third-party applications that simply make calls to the H.264 code in Windows (and which do not incorporate any H.264 code directly) are covered by Microsoft’s license of H.264.
Some comments pointed to language in our Windows EULA that comes directly from MPEG-LA and reinforces many of these terms. As with all licensing programs, there are limitations and issues, which people have pointed out. The functionality we provide is technology we license and we follow the terms of that license.
Several comments asked about Microsoft’s support for plug-ins (like Flash and Silverlight). Of course, IE9 will continue to support Flash and other plug-ins. Developers who want to use the same markup today across different browsers rely on plug-ins. Plug-ins are also important for delivering innovation and functionality ahead of the standards process; mainstream video on the web today works primarily because of plug-ins. We’re committed to plug-in support because developer choice and opportunity in authoring web pages are very important; ISVs on a platform are what make it great. We fully expect to support plug-ins (of all types, including video) along with HTML5. There were also some comments asking about our work with Adobe on Flash and this report offers a recent discussion.
We’ve read some follow up discussion about support for more than the H.264 codec in IE9’s HTML5 video tag. To be clear, users can install other codecs for use in Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. For web browsers, developers can continue to offer plug-ins (using NPAPI or ActiveX; they are effectively equivalent in this scenario) so that webpages can play video using these codecs on Windows. For example, webpages will still be able to play VC-1 (Microsoft WMV) files in IE9. A key motivator for improving the codec support in Windows 7 was to reduce the need that end-users might have to download additional codecs. The security risks regarding downloadable codecs and associated malware are documented and significant. By building on H.264 for HTML5 video functionality, we provide a higher level of certainty regarding the security of this aspect of browsing and our web platform.
The biggest obstacle to supporting more than H.264 today is the uncertainty. When there’s industry consensus and confidence that the uncertainties are resolved, we’ll be open to considering other codecs. Until then, we’ll continue with our current plans to deliver great HTML5 video in IE9 with certainty for consumers and developers.
List of articles referenced