Patents, MPEG-LA and Not-So-Professional Video Cameras

So you’ve bought a nice new professional video camera and you want to shoot a video of a friends band so they can sell a couple of copies to buy a new guitar, simple eh ? Well not quite, you’ll probably want to check the license for the camera according to this article by Eugenia Loli-Queru:

You see, there is something very important, that the vast majority of both consumers and video professionals don’t know: ALL modern video cameras and camcorders that shoot in h.264 or mpeg2, come with a license agreement that says that you can only use that camera to shoot video for “personal use and non-commercial” purposes (go on, read your manuals).

Now, you may ask, this can’t be right, can it ? Surely a “professional” video camera should be able to be used for professional purposes ? Well yes, it should, but it can’t. The reason is (of course) software patents, according to Eugenia:

Apparently, MPEG-LA makes it difficult for camera manufacturers, or video editor software houses, to obtain a cheap-enough license that allows their users to use their codec any way they want!

So the camera manufacturers pass that onto the purchaser, if you buy one and want to use it professionally then you will have to get your own license from MPEG-LA and then pay them a royalty on every copy sold. Sadly you can’t even get away from this by transcoding your MPEG2 or H.264 video into a free format for two reasons, firstly the camera most likely uses it internally first (and that’s apparently enough) and secondly the MPEG-LA claim their patent portfolio is so broad that you cannot create a video codec these days without infringing one of their patents. So theoretically you’d need to pay no matter what you did.

Eugenia does offer one possible way out, the ancient MJPEG format:

Let me make one thing clear. MJPEG **sucks** as a codec. It’s very old and inefficient. OGV Theora looks like alien technology compared to it. But (all, if not most of) its patents have expired. And JPEG is old enough to predate MPEG-LA. Thankfully, there are still some MJPEG HD cameras in the market, although they are getting fewer and fewer: Nikon’s dSLRs, Pentax’s new dSLRs, and the previous generation of Panasonic’s HD digicams. Other cameras that might be more acceptable to use codec-wise are the Panasonic HVX-200 (DVCPro HD codec, $6000), the SILICON IMAGING SI-2K (using the intermediate format Cineform to record, costs $12,000), and the RED One (using the R3D intermediate format, costs $16,000+). Almost every other HD camera in the market is unsuitable, if you want to be in the clear 100%

Yet another reason why software patents need to be defeated, they stifle what we can do with the technology we have paid for.