[whatwg] MPEG-1 subset proposal for HTML5 video codec

Benjamin M. Schwartz bmschwar at fas.harvard.edu
Fri May 29 21:32:57 PDT 2009

Ian Fette (イアンフェッティ) wrote:
> We are using H.264 in Google Chrome, not in Chromium. We do not have the
> ffmpeg / h.264 related code in chromium (only the header files for ffmpeg),
> ffmpeg and h.264 related stuff is a complete external dependency loaded at
> run time. Chromium is the open source project, Google Chrome is the product
> we build by taking that open source code [chromium] and adding a few things
> that we don't make available in chromium (e.g. our artwork, and in this case
> a binary for ffmpeg / h.264 related stuff that is loaded at run time).

Thank you for this clear and detailed explanation.  I have downloaded a
recent Chrome release, and indeed, the package includes a binary of
libavcodec (avcodec-52.dll), and the binary contains h.264 support.  This
binary is distributed under the LGPLv2.1, which is the license of ffmpeg
and libavcodec. [1]

I am not a lawyer, a legal expert, or a licensing expert.  However,
according to my understanding of Section 11 of LGPLv2.1, an entity such as
Google is prohibited from distributing an LGPL-licensed work if they have
made any patent agreements pertinent to the work, unless those patent
agreements are also available to all humans for any purpose whatsoever.
From the license: [2]

"""For example, if a patent license would not permit royalty-free
redistribution of the Library by all those who receive copies directly or
indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and
this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the
Library. """

I have no specific knowledge of Google's licensing agreements regarding
h.264.  However, it seems very likely to me that Google has negotiated a
license that allows it to distribute h.264 decoders, but that this license
is non-transferable.  If that is the case, then the LGPL prohibits Google
from distributing ffmpeg/libavcodec at all.

Note that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Chrome.  Google would be
prohibited from distributing ffmpeg even if the Chrome project had never
been initiated, if it holds a typical h.264 patent license.

I hope that you will consult internal legal counsel on this matter, and
make sure that they are fully aware of the implications of the LGPL in
this case.  They will certainly be able to make better informed
recommendations than I can.

I also think this is a good example of the sort of legal complexity that
inevitably results from proprietary codecs and software patents.

--Ben Schwartz

[1] http://www.ffmpeg.org/legal.html
[2] http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/lgpl-2.1.html

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