back to article Cisco: We'll open-source our H.264 video code AND foot licensing bill

Networking titan Cisco Systems says it will open source its implementation of the H.264 video codec and release it as a free binary download. This could make it easier for open-source projects to incorporate real-time streaming video into their software as the company has promised to cover the codec's patent-licensing fees. " …


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  1. Swarthy
    Thumb Up

    Wow. Good Job Cisco.

    I hereby take back 3/4 of the bad things I've said about them.

    1. itzman

      but remember...

      ...more free codecs means more video downloads sells more cisco routers.

      I was speaking to a RedHat employee t'other night. He said open sourcing nearly all the work they did was entirely in their commercial interest.

      It got debugged for them and thoroughly tested by the community, and what came back from the open source community worked with everyone else developments too.

  2. Lennart Sorensen

    Quite misleading.

    If it is only free to use the binary version, then it isn't a free open source H.264 is it?

    Rather misleading really.

    I for one don't want any binary blobs on my nice open source system, and this doesn't change a thing. just Cisco trying to get some good PR while throwing around "open source" and "free license", except not at the same time.

    So linux distributions can't include it, because Cisco pays the license for the binary downloads, which of course means they need to know how many downloads there are, and it only applies to the binaries they offer, not any others built from their source.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Quite misleading.

      It's sort of free :-/ It's free until Cisco stops the paying the bill. It is a BSD license, and from what I read the distribution of source is just as free as the binary. I gather that each build for each platform will be subject to royalty, not each individual download.

      But, it's a nice intermediate solution, to a hopefully not-so-long problem.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Quite misleading.

      The only one being misleading is you - they said their implementation will be open-source, and the binary will be free as they'll pay associated licensing costs.

      They never said 'free open source' - you did.

      Also, what more could they do? They've released their source and will even pay when people use their binary.

      How you expect Cisco to magically remove all patents owned by others is beyond me.

      As for binary blobs, do you install everything from source after reviewing all the source code?

      Attitudes like that give the rest of us in the open-source world a bad reputation.

    3. Rusty 1

      Re: Quite misleading.

      So your nice open source system doesn't have one jot of binary/proprietary software/technology? You have an open source BIOS, your CPU doesn't use microcode, and your HDD/SDDs don't have any firmware whatsoever. You probably also have the full logic of all ASICs and FPGAs on your motherboard and peripherals pinned up on your wank wall, don't you?

      Does your nose resent being bitten off to spite your face?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Quite misleading.


      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Quite misleading.

        The problem is that, with this - Cisco have effectively halted all development on alternate codec and allowed a patent encumbered one to be widely adopted as a standard.

        All because it's free - for now, or until they change their mind, or another patent holder objects, or that part of Cisco get sold to somebody else.

        Suppose sun had offered free downloads of solaris-x86 in the early 90s. Then we wouldn't have needed linux and today the world would be owned by Larry "blofeld" Ellison

        1. Tom 13

          Re: All because it's free

          It's free as in beer, not free as in you can use it freely.

          While I think Stallman's approach is communistic, he is at least logically consistent*. So long as people are willing to freely donate to his communistic GNU project I have no objection to him advancing his ideas. I only object when there is an insistence that his approach is best and therefor everyone will be compelled to comply with his ideas.

          *I also think given the current state of IP law we need an alternative. I don't particularly like Stallman's alternative, but I don't see a practical way to implement an alternative I'd prefer. Until a large quantity of politicians come to their senses, his approach seems the only practical alternative. And I expect Hell will not only be serving ice water but a full selection of frozen girlie drinks before we get a large quantity of politicians coming to their senses.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bit weird...and by no means out of the woods

    This boils down to Cisco offering source code to their implementation of H.264, and somehow tracking every time someone builds it into a binary blob so that they can pay MPEG-LA. Otherwise, the lawyers at MPEG-LA would be gearing up for a licensing fight with Cisco, surely?

    With my tinfoil hat on, it occurs to me that making Cisco's implementation of H.264 the defacto standard across a bazillion devices is probably rather good business for Cisco.

    1. Swarthy
      Thumb Up

      Re: Bit weird...and by no means out of the woods

      And that is why I only took back 3/4 of the bad things I've said about them.

      1. K

        Re: Bit weird...and by no means out of the woods


        Whilst this is good news, there is probably some ulterior motive, nothing really sinister but do expect to see a lot of "we're inter-compatible with .." press releases from them in the near future.

        1. ThomH

          Re: Bit weird...and by no means out of the woods

          Ulterior motives?

          H.264 is getting on a bit and if the MPEG formats remain the industry standards then the MPEG members are more likely to make some serious money on HEVC/H.265.

          Cisco makes a lot of money from telepresence equipment, including software and the physical stuff you kit out your boardroom out with. If it's automatically compatible with Android and iOS and everything else that comes with a browser but has no plug-in architecture at all or for which it would be a major hassle to maintain a plug-in then that's a big plus.

    2. SuccessCase

      Re: Bit weird...and by no means out of the woods

      I doubt they will adopt the liability of having to track downloads for such a widespread component. That would be too painful for everyone and could give rise to too many disputes.

      More likely they will seek to negotiate with MPEG-LA some statistical measures of use, or may even just agree some flat-rate compensation. With the widespread use of h264 there is probably already a statistical model for compensation in use, and on the non-discriminatory component of MPEG-LA's FRAND terms, they have probably already determined they can use that.

      Of course if past behaviour is a guide there is nothing to stop Motorola and Samsung from coming forwards (assuming they have patents in the MPEG-LA pool) and saying "forget it, though we committed our patents to the MPEG-LA pool, we reserve the right to make up new terms outside of the pool agreement and will seek an injunction against anyone who isn't prepared to pay for whatever surprise ambush scenario we make up, thereby rendering the very concept if a patent pool a vehicle we can hijack and use for our own ends rather than for reaching that destination we jointly agreed when we joined it.".

      Sorry, I couldn't resist the opportunity this example presents to make that point ! In general, due to the bad feeling around perceived trollish behaviour by certain opponents (one fruity firm in particular), much of the tech community simply hasn't been prepared take any time to grok why Samsung and Motorola's behaviour re: their patents they committed to patent pools, has been unconscionable (and therefore quite why it is they have attracted anti-trust investigations on this point in multiple jurisdictions).

    3. Tom 13

      Re: Bit weird...and by no means out of the woods

      I don't expect MPEG-LA will level the lawsuit against Cisco. I expect they'll level it against whoever other than Cisco builds the blob. Which is why some people are rightly objecting to this stop-gap solution. It's a bit like Clay's 1850 Grand Compromise on slavery. It might hold the machine together for a little while longer, but it doesn't address the root problem.

  4. Mage Silver badge

    Win Win Win?

    Win for Consumers, Win for Cisco (more video means they sell more kit to someone somewhere) and a Win for the MPEG-LA. Every individual build probably doesn't need tracked if Cisco does a suitable volume licence deal. Less paperwork per use for MPEG-LA?

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: Win Win Win?

      Of course wver individual build need to be tracked. For the following reasons

      1) so that the MPAA/MPEG-LA/Whoever can sue the people who used it into bankrupcy when CISCO stop paying the bills.

      2) So that the NSA can keep tabs of what pron you are watching and all those FB videos of beheading.

      Get real. This is nowt more than a publicity stunt by CISCO. The MPEG-LA Lawyers will be telling CISCO the error of their ways very shortly.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Or did I miss something ?

    1. diodesign Silver badge

      Re: x264/FFMEG

      And who pays the royalties on using that?


  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Open source... binary only download. Hu?

    Open source... binary only download. That's a free binary, not open source.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Open source... binary only download. Hu?

      "binary only download"

      No one has said that. Cisco says it will release the source. If you use it, it'll cover the bill.


      1. NadeeG

        Re: Open source... binary only download. Hu?

        We are open-sourcing Cisco’s H.264 codec. That code will then be made available on an ongoing basis as a binary downloadable. We will pay the royalties to MPEGLA for it. This effectively makes it free for any browser (or other app) to include it. The source code will be open source and distributed with a BSD lIcense. The binary module is separate and when the users software downloads it from Cisco, that is when we are responsible for paying the MPEG LA royalties.

        By releasing the source code to an H.264 codec under the BSD license, there is an argument to be made to consider that Open Source because the source code is under a BSD license. All kinds of people have released code under the BSD licenses and there may or may not be patents that apply to it but it is widely acknowledged to be open source.

        Nadee Gunasena, Cisco PR

        1. Tomato42

          Re: Open source... binary only download. Hu?

          and how do you make sure that the code you download is the one Cisco used to compile the binary download?

          As if we don't have enough problems with Java and Flash...

        2. Tom 7

          That code will then be made available on an ongoing basis as a binary downloadable

          @Nadee Gunasena, Cisco PR

          I'm sorry but WTF does that mean?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: That code will then be made available on an ongoing basis as a binary downloadable

            "@Nadee Gunasena, Cisco PR

            I'm sorry but WTF does that mean?"

            Surely it means they're providing pre-compiled binaries for people who can't compile the source code. This is pretty standard practise, isn't it?

            1. JJS

              Re: That code will then be made available on an ongoing basis as a binary downloadable

              If I'm reading NadeeG's comment correctly, it means the following:

              If you download the compiled binaries from Cisco, your royalties are paid for by Cisco.

              If you download the BSD licensed source from Cisco and compile your own binaries, you're on your own for MPEG LA royalties.

              If you download the BSD licensed source from Cisco and use the code in another project, you're also on your own for MPEG LA royalties.

              So basically the open source side of this is not that interesting, it's just another implementation of H.264 to consider alongside x264 and the others. The interesting part is the offer of a paid-for plugin for your browser and that's pretty much it.

  7. dan1980

    I'm divided

    On the one hand, I am driven to spontaneous admiration and respect for Cisco. On the, I'm still pretty sure there's no such thing as a free lunch. I suppose the question is: what do Cisco gain from this move? More specifically, how will they recoup the costs and from whom?

    On the face of it, this move seems magnanimous enough to warrant great praise, but then experience with reality would suggest at least some caution.

    1. Mad Chaz

      Re: I'm divided

      What do they sale? Networking gear. Everyone all the sudden being able to use video technologie for free is going to, they hope, get someone to make a real killer video app that will force ISPs to upgrade a shitload of kit because 800kbit/sec upload from the client just won't cut it anymore.

      I guess that's what they are thinking anyway.

    2. itzman

      Re: I'm divided

      IF your business is selling code that open source code directly competes with then you won't like open source.

      If your business is selling something else that open source code increases the sales of, why would you not support open source?

  8. Oh Homer

    [Golf Clap]

    OK, so I applaud Cisco for this gesture. However, ultimately Cisco is purely in the business of making money, so its motives are not altruistic. I assume this is either a way of promoting a specific bit of Cisco kit or is simply a general PR exercise - another way of drumming-up business, but either way it's not altruism. Cisco is not a charity, so don't be fooled by the hype.

    But that's fine, I have no objection to that. I have no objection to Cisco selling hardware or services, or even promoting that hardware or services with freebies, as long as they don't pretend it's anything more noble than that.

    What I object to, in this instance, is the MPEG-LA racketeering operation benefitting from my use of Cisco's software, even though it's not my money being siphoned into the MPEG-LA's greasy palms. By using Cisco's royalty-paid software, I'm legitimising something I find profoundly unethical - the intellectual monopolisation of mathematics, and the belligerent extortion of protection money, whilst indirectly helping to fund the extortionist.

    If I'm going to use patent-infected software at all, I want to make sure the vendor isn't legitimising and funding racketeers like the MPEG-LA. That's why I'd much rather use software like ffmpeg, which has a contemptuous disregard for the whole patent fiasco, much as I do.

    See also: Broadcom's Eben Upton's Raspberry Pi Fundation(sic), which does something similar.

  9. andro

    site license

    So cisco is paying a site license for unlimited use on the h264 codec for the whole world? That would have to be one hell of a license fee. Something doesnt smell right. There will have to be limitations, or else the fee will have to be so large that mpeg la are happy to never accept a cent from anyone else.

    I can see the license being restricted to use in FF and/or other browsers would work. But I bet I cant write my own unrelated video conferencing application and distribute it then say "cisco will pay up for that part".

    1. NadeeG

      Re: site license

      Let me see if I can clarify for Cisco ... we will select licensing terms that allow for this code to be used in commercial products as well as open source projects. In order for Cisco to be responsible for the MPEG LA licensing royalties for the module, Cisco must provide the packaging and distribution of this code in a binary module format (think of it like a plug-in, but not using the same APIs as existing plugins), in addition to several other constraints. This gives the community the best of all worlds – a team can choose to use the source code, in which case the team is responsible for paying all applicable license fees, or the team can use the binary module distributed by Cisco, in which case Cisco will cover the MPEG LA licensing fees. - Nadee Gunasena, Cisco PR

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: site license

        In return for h264 become the new web standard ( as opposed to flash, or some open source codec) I'm sure the MPEG-LA looked favourably on the licensing cost.

        Just like MP3 offering free license to open source decoders. How popular would ogg be if the MP3 license holders tracked down every non-Apple user of an MP3 ?

        1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

          Re: site license

          As noted above, I can see this is good for Cisco in the long run as having a widely available standard * video decoder library available is good for interoperability with their video conferencing, and as video is moving (aka being pushed by suppliers) into more mainstream systems then not having to provide bespoke plugins for every damn device is a good thing. The side effect is that it opens up the usage for other players, but IMHO that only strengthens the technology in this case.

          Also, don't forget - this seems to apply to the decoder... encoding is likely a different licence altogether.

          * standard in this case is commonly used / available, not necessarily an agreed upon open standard - just something that is available almost everywhere and works almost everywhere. Such as Flash or PDF (ignore the details and problems of these two, but the concept is the same - you can produce a PDF document and generally expect somebody else to be able to read it)

          ooooh... El Reg... I like. An "Edit" button for posts. Just had to try it! :)

  10. harmjschoonhoven


    In the mean time the hot issue in the broadcast world is HEVC a.k.a. ITU-T H.265

    or MPEG-H Part 2 (ISO/IEC 23008-2). See:

    and/or google "H.265-HEVC-Overview.pdf".

    This codec will supersede H.264 in a few years time, just like H.264 superseded MPEG-2.

  11. westlake

    Enterprise Cap

    Cisco is one of about thirty H.264 licensors.

    Most of them global industrial giants like LG, Mitsubishi, Philips and Samsung.

    There is an enterprise cap on H,264 royalties. Currently $6.5 million/yr. Cisco's revenues are about $49 billion/yr.

    The video compression codec is about the perception of color, depth, motion and detail. In both video and sound, It is not a simple problem ----

    which is why even Google can come up short.

  12. RonWheeler

    Overpriced phones and hypicrites

    Does this mean third parties will be able to communicate freely by video with their vastly overpriced handsets via Callmanager? Without handing over their firstborn as a license fee. No? Same old Cisco.

  13. HMB

    Google Chrome Undead H264 Support

    Ladies and Gentlemen....

    Once again, for your amusement I present the fabulous, undead, zombie for your fascination and curiosity....

    Chrome (on Windows at least) still hasn't stopped supporting H264 without any drama:

    Quirksmode HTML5 Video Test

  14. William Higinbotham

    Save bandwidth

    It would make sense it the compression is better for minimizing bandwidth. Then they say that the new routers work better to deliver the bandwidth the companies want. And so on...

  15. Dan 55 Silver badge

    What on earth is the fuss about

    Why are browser developers making H.264 and WebM playback so special, what's wrong with getting the browser to load up the codec installed in the OS? If H.264 is there (as it will be on anything post-XP) it'll play it and if not it'll display an error like 'No H.264 codec found. Please install one. Click here for help installing one' which will take you to a list of well-known codecs. Just like audio playback. Job done.

    1. Tom 7

      Re: What on earth is the fuss about

      Post XP?? Thats about 2% of windows installs and fuck all of the handheld community's devices which now make up the majority of devices.

      Not that they need H.264 - If people think its better for compression and that that is important can they just send me the text of their video first so I know not to bother downloading the shit in the first place.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: What on earth is the fuss about

        Whilst that might have been true a few years back, now in most cases you can leverage the OS to playback H.264, even on mobiles and tablets. Mozilla, Opera, and so on don't really need to get involved, unless there's some odd licensing thing happening which makes them responsible for using a H.264 codec installed on the OS, which I really doubt.

  16. monkeyfish

    Obligitory xkcd

    To that end, he said, Mozilla is working on Daala, a new open-source video codec that it hopes will not just be unencumbered by patents but will also "leapfrog H.265 and VP9" in terms of video quality.


  17. Antartica

    It is serviceable, but not the optimal solution

    From what I've gleaned from the mozilla blog post and the phoronix forums:

    1. Supposedly Cisco is already paying close to upper limit of rowalties, as they are capped anually (this year was $6.5M).

    2. Cisco is covering the royalties for copies of the binary module downloaded from their site.

    3. Cisco has said that they will be releasing not only the source code, but also the makefiles (flags, configurations, etc) used for compiling, so their binary is independently reproducible.

    4. Mozilla has said that the procedure with firefox will be: download the binary module, check its checksum with the "known good version" and if it matches, use it. The checksum of the "known good version" is the checksum of the software compiled from sources.

    5. Cisco has said that they will provide binaries for all platforms/architectures that can be reasonably supported.

    So it is a useful stopgap, although not as nice as using a patent-free/royalty-free codec.

  18. Al Jones

    How does a "free" decoder help "two-way real-time audio and video communications"

    "This situation has been a stumbling block for WebRTC, the Worldwide Web Consortium's new standard for two-way real-time audio and video communications, because obviously getting two browsers to talk to each other requires them both to speak the same language."

    Unless Cisco's offering includes an encoder as well, it's not going to do much for two-way communication!

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    let's hope that comes next

    maybe polycom or avaya or someone will want to compete for marketing goodwill

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