The first really good video codec was MPEG-4 H.264. I remember in 2001 my housemate watching a movie on his telly — playing off a CD-R. A whole movie crammed onto a CD, encoded with DivX! *
So anyone could just use H.264? Well, no — it had software patents up the wazoo.
Software patents are literally patents on mathematics. They’re as odious as that sounds. In theory, software patents are largely null and void in the US after the Supreme Court Alice decision of 2014. Just not in practice.
There’s been a pile of even better video codecs since H.264, like HEVC (H.265), VP9 and AV1 — and you’ll really need them when you’re encoding at Netflix quality.
And they’re all plagued by software patents, a very few of which might even be from people who had anything to do with creating the algorithms in question.
You can fight back if you’re big enough. Google released VP9 to spoil the H.264 patent pool’s market. Even then, Google had to negotiate payoffs.
But that only applies to people making devices or selling programs, right? Well, no — Jan Ozer at Streaming Learning Center posts how a pile of these companies have been writing to studios, large and small, to shake them down for using modern codec algorithms.
The legal basis for this is nonexistent. But you get to spend legal fees to defend the claim. Or you could just not use the modern codecs. Though you can’t really do that:
You need H.264 for backward compatibility, HEVC for HDR, and 4/8K, and AV1 isn’t sufficiently supported in mobile hardware or the living room to abandon either H.264 or HEVC. And, as mentioned, AV1 doesn’t offer immunity either.
The patent trolls were the people claiming that MP3 was “dead” in 2017 — when in fact it was finally freed, because the last patents on it had expired. MP3 is sorta mediocre, but it’s also a common baseline everyone knows how to handle. And, y’know, it’ll do.
Ozer claims his post certainly isn’t intended as any sort of attack on the patent pools or the claimants, no no! Of course, you might feel otherwise from reading the facts he sets out about this exciting new frontier for rapacious arseholes.
It is difficult to overstate just how much better everything would be for everyone except the parasites if software patents were abolished properly.
* adamzochowi notes: “H264 didn’t exist in 2001. At the time DivX was really a hacked Microsofts codec to allow encodes outside of .ASF files. This MS codec was a decent codec using standard Mpeg4 part 2 Simple Profile.” So yeah, it was probably that — MPEG-4, but not quite H.264 yet. Still better compression than I’d seen up to then.