Thursday, September 2, 2010

What artists need to know about H.264 - you get screwed

Don't get me wrong, Vincent Laforet does stunning work and is a bold pioneer in the HDSLR frontier.  This guy is truly one of my heroes.  Tara and I have watched Nocturne a zillion times, yet every time we're still completely mesmerized by it.  Really, really great stuff.

But Vincent's recent post about MPEG-LA making H.264 "permanently royalty-free" suggests to me that when it comes to this H.264 licensing mess, he just doesn't get it.  Please note that I certainly don't blame Laforet for this.  MPEG-LA has deliberately made the issue extremely confusing.  Most people don't get it.  Plus, Laforet is an artist, and in my perfect world, artists shouldn't have to worry about this kind of lawyer crap anyway.  They should be too busy making art, which Laforet is.

Unfortunately, the H.264 issue is not as Laforet suggests "muchado about nothing."  Artists, you really need to understand this, so read on.

How MPEG-LA screws artists


The H.264 licensing terms are written as a sort of magic trick, a sleight-of-hand that allows MPEG-LA to screw artists without them noticing.  This magic trick works in part because intangible stuff like "software" or "patents on math" make a person's brain momentarily go soft (mine included).

So to protect ourselves from the magic trick, we need to use an analogy.  We just replace "video codec" with a physical tool used to build things, something like "hammer".  So artists, this is exactly how the H.264 licensing terms work:
BASH-EM owns patents for a new, improved hammer.  Various hammer manufacturers license these patents, and BASH-EM collects a royalty from the manufacturers for each hammer sold.  BASH-EM also collects a royalty from professional carpenters for each house sold whenever the house was built (in part) using patented BASH-EM hammers, unless the house is given away for free (possibly with an ad painted on the outside), in which case no royalty is collected from the carpenters.
Seems like BASH-EM is screwing professional carpenters pretty hard, doesn't it?  Yep, and MPEG-LA is screwing artists just as hard.

H.264 is a tool.  The MPEG-LA collects royalties (per unit delivered to consumers) from manufacturers who implement the tool (in software or hardware).  When you buy, say, a 5D Mark II, part of the cost is a royalty payment to MPEG-LA for the right to use their patented math in the camera's H.264 encoder/decoder.  Now I don't like this because as a software engineer I know that software patents don't increase the rate of software innovation, they actually hinder it.  But this type of royalty payment is standard when it comes to licensing patenting technology.

However, MPEG-LA amazingly also collects royalties (per unit delivered to consumers) on your creative work whenever H.264 is used at any step of the content creation or delivery process.  To be clear, this is not typical patent licensing.  This is the special "screw the artists" clause that as far as I know is unique to MPEG-LA.

Say you create a great short film and a million of your loyal fans buy it (direct Internet download)... MPEG-LA will collect a million royalty payments from you.  And keep in mind that MPEG-LA already collected at least two royalty payments from you (for your HDSLR and your editing software), plus collected a royalty payment from each of your fans (for their video players).  But those payments don't happen as often, so that's why MPEG-LA loves the extra screw-the-artists royalties: if the same million fans buy your next short film, MPEG-LA gets another million royalty payments (whereas with typical patent licensing they wouldn't).

H.264 didn't create your short film anymore than, say, your 5D Mark II did.  Yes, they were among the many tools you utilized, but you did the work.  You certainly aren't sending royalties to Canon.  So why should you be sending royalties to MPEG-LA?

This really sucks for artists because simply by using an HDSLR camera that encodes to H.264 video, you're roped into the MPEG-LA scam, even if you ultimately deliver your art to your fans using a suitable royalty-free video codec.

I encourage artists to read the H.264 license summary, although I warn you, it's super painful.  And remember, it's written as a sleight-of-hand.  They want you to walk away thinking "oh, they don't screw me when I ship fewer that 100k units, and they'll only screw me at most $3.5 million a year, so I guess that's a pretty good deal."  Details aside, they still screw you.

Fixing the problem


So how do we fix this?  First, artists must insist that Canon (and the rest) not use H.264 in their future cameras.  I'm assuming Canon didn't knowingly screw artists by using H.264.  After all, companies can fall victim to the MPEG-LA sleight-of-hand just as easily as anyone else.  But Canon needs to do the right thing on future cameras.

There is a royalty-free codec called Dirac that should be quite competitive with H.264 for the sort of real-time encoding done in these cameras.  The applicable Dirac profiles have already been standardized as SMPTE VC-2, and Dirac is already used in some studio equipment (by the BBC in particular).

There is obviously also a need for a royalty-free RAW video codec.

One more thing


Say Canon listens and in the near future we can get HDSLR cameras that use a royalty-free video codec (or at least one without a "screw the artist" clause).  Problem solved, right?

Well, no.  What if certain popular consumer devices (upon which your fans enjoy your art) can only play H.264 video because the manufacturer of said devices thinks there should only be H.264 video?  Damn, artists are now roped into the MPEG-LA scam again.

Like I said, I'm assuming Canon is innocent till proven guilty, that they didn't knowingly screw artists by using H.264.  But Apple is knowingly screwing artists because Apple is one of the patent holders in the MPEG-LA patent pool.  When MPEG-LA makes money screwing artists, Apple makes money screwing artists.

I know that many artists (including Laforet) have a lot of loyalty to a certain "magical" guy in a black turtleneck... probably because at one time this guy did take pretty good care of artists, did open some real opportunities for them.  But artists, that "magical" guy in the black turtleneck has since moved on, and so should you.

You could fill the void with some new magical people who are working hard to create expansive new opportunities for artists to make money making the art they want to make.

Join the conversation


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1 comment:

  1. Great blog and work, Jason. Now that the Nikons have an uncompressed HDMI out, would love to see a recorder that can record in Dirac - as opposed to Prores or DNxHD.

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