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In a major play in the battle for HTML5 video, MPEG LA — the firm that manages patents for audio and video codecs like MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 — announced today that it will offer a royalty-free license for its H.264 codec on sites that offer free video to consumers.

Previously, the group announced that sites like YouTube could use H.264 royalty-free until 2016. Now, those sites can use the codec to drive their HTML5 streaming video for free forever.

HTML5 is the latest revision of HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the programming language that makes up most of the web. It’s being looked at as a challenger to Adobe Flash in many ways, since it allows for web animations and video without the use of a plugin. Many video sites — like YouTube and Vimeo — are readying HTML5 video offerings, but controversy has erupted over which video codec is better suited to drive HTML5 video.

H.264 is currently the most mature codec available, but open source advocates prefer alternative offerings like Ogg Theora, or Google’s new WebM video standard. Mozilla refused to support H.264 in Firefox (even though it’s supported by IE9, Google Chrome, and Safari), because it didn’t want to pay licensing fees to the MPEG LA group.

As NewTeeVee points out, “MPEG LA is still charging for H.264 encoders and decoders, as well as for the use of H.264 in a number of other areas, including paid video streams and downloads.” Meaning that if Mozilla wanted to support the H.264 standard, it would still have to pay a fee.

MPEG LA’s decision was likely inspired by Google’s WebM standard. Google managed to rope in many high-profile hardware and software partners — including AMD, ARM, Logitech, Brightcove, and Skype — who together could strong-arm the industry away from H.264 video. Not surprisingly, MPEG LA has threatened to create a patent pool license to extract fees from WebM partners.

While making H.264 royalty free for many sites is a keen business move on MPEG LA’s part, it hasn’t won the battle for HTML5 video dominance yet. There’s certainly still room for a completely free offering, especially since Google is the driving force against H.264.

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