Cisco announced that they will be releasing an implementation of H.264 under a BSD license along with distributing binaries to encode and decode this video format. Their purpose for doing so is to push it as a WebRTC standard with the IETF. The problem faced by Fedora is that the patent licensed granted by Cisco covers only the binaries that they themselves build and distribute. If the IETF approves the use of H.264 in addition to (or instead of) the VP8 codec as part of mandatory compliance in the WebRTC standard, Fedora would have to ship (or provide access to) a pre-compiled binary codec over which we have no control. We cannot ship a version that we ourselves build because it would not be covered under the patent license grant.
The issue was escalated to FESCo, the Fedora Engineering Steering Committee, today with the question of how we should respond. We elected to make the following statement:
Fedora is a distribution that cares about software freedom and our users freedom. Firstly, we cannot ship binary-only prebuilt software within Fedora. This rules out inclusion of OpenH264 binaries direct from Cisco, or other providers. Secondly, we cannot ship software built from source which is not free for any use, freely distributable, and free from patent restrictions. Therefore, Fedora is similarly unable to ship rebuilt OpenH264 code. Fedora would be much happier with a non-patent encumbered codec in the standard as it would relieve us of the burden of caring for a codec implementation that we cannot fix if it is buggy on our platform, let us ship improved or more efficient versions of the codec if that is asked for, and relieve us of the burden of making sure all implementors of the standard were using a proper technique to retrieve the patent-encumbered portion from the internet so that we weren't shipping non-free code. Acceptance of an insufficiently-free license of the OpenH264 codec would mean that open-source vendors are not able to implement it on their own terms. They must rely on the implementation provided by a third party (Cisco) and create workarounds to have the user download that implementation after installation, increasing the burden on open-source users. This creates an unequal environment for open-source vendors.
As members of the Open Source community, we feel that it is necessary to take a principled stand here. Allowing the WebRTC standard to mandate a patent-encumbered codec ensures an uneven playing field for open source distributions. I would like to encourage anyone reading this to write to the IETF at firstname.lastname@example.org and express concern at how much damage it would do to force an insufficiently open codec to be required for compliance with the future of the World Wide Web. Please make it clear to the IETF that to select H.264 as a mandatory codec would be to reduce the availability of competitive and alternative implementations.