Fedora and openSUSE are removing H.264, H.265, and VC-1 VA-API video codecs support from Mesa to avoid potential patent issues.
Fedora’s decision to drop support for several essential video codecs sparked widespread outrage in the Linux community last week. Additionally, openSUSE quickly followed suit, further escalating the situation.
Because the case is highly complex, we will try to shed light on the nature of the problem, who is affected by it, and possible solutions.
The Root of the Problem
Here we are talking about software patents and their application to legislation in different countries.
In short, some video codecs, such as H.264, are patent-protected by MPEG LA, a US company based in Denver, Colorado. Therefore, their use implies the payment of patent fees.
By chance, Red Hat’s lawyers discovered that the codecs used by Fedora via the Mesa library violated patent rules. So naturally, they immediately raised concerns about initiating patent infringement lawsuits against the corporation.
What is notable and significant in this case is that these patents only apply to corporations with a presence in the US. In other words, these patent rights do not apply in Europe, where the software patent law differs.
As a result, Linux distributions headquartered outside the US or entirely community-driven, with no commercial purpose, are not subject to the risk of infringing on these patent rights.
What Are H.264, H.265, and VC-1
H.264 (Advanced Video Coding), H.265 (High Efficiency Video Coding), and VC-1 (Video Codec-1) are standards for video compression used in recording and distributing digital video. They are all referred to as video codecs.
Generally speaking, video codecs, as the names imply, allow you to create or consume video content. So, they are utilized in any application using multimedia content.
There are countless examples, such as the media players you use to watch movies, video editors, online video streaming services like YouTube, online video conferencing services like Zoom, video recording software, and so on.
Unfortunately, one of the video codecs targeted for removal from Fedora and openSUSE, H.264, is currently the world’s most used HD video compression standard.
First and foremost, it should be stated that this problem will only affect users with AMD-based systems. Why? Because AMD entirely relies on Mesa for these codecs.
Users using an Intel GPU will be unaffected because either “intel-media-driver” or “libva-intel-driver” already provides VA-API (Video Acceleration API) hardware decoding without requiring Mesa.
At the same time, NVIDIA users can also rest easy because there is a proprietary driver that, by default, supports the codecs mentioned above.
We have now come to the Linux distributions that have stated that support for H.264, H.265, and VC-1 would be removed from their Mesa packages. Fedora was the first to announce this, and it looks that this support is no longer available in the upcoming Fedora 37 release.
Furthermore, we should state that H.264, H.265, and VC-1 Mesa’s support would also be removed from existing Fedora versions.
Two days following Fedora’s decision, openSUSE followed suit, declaring that they also removed support for the in-question video codecs. The comment issued by one of the openSUSE developers below the change made in the Mesa build is short and to the point: “Our legal staff asked for it.”
Yes, SUSE is headquartered in Germany, but it operates offices in the United States, making it subject to US patent law.
For the time being, Fedora and openSUSE are the only two Linux distributions confirmed to have removed Mesa support for H.264, H.265, and VC-1. It is unclear whether others will follow suit.
However, this is unlikely because most other Linux distributions are either not controlled by a corporation with a presence in the US or based outside the US. For example, because it is located in the United Kingdom, Ubuntu looks unaffected by the problem.
In other words, Linux distros based outside of the US are not threatened with potential consequences for infringed patent rights applicable in the US.
Before we go on to the problem-solving choices, the users should clearly understand one thing. The removal of Mesa support for H.264, H.265, and VC-1 does not imply that you would be unable to play videos that use any of these codecs.
Of course, these videos will play; however, they will be decoded by the CPU rather than accelerated by your graphics card (GPU).
And now comes the main issue, primarily affecting laptop users, whose batteries will be drained faster due to significantly increased consumption caused by intense CPU-related processes. So with that clarification made, let’s move on to possible solutions.
As always, the Open Source community reacted immediately and found a solution – RPM Fusion. It is a software repository providing extra packages for Fedora Linux.
Because the repository is hosted in Europe, specifically France, the software included within it is not subject to the same patent rights as those in the US.
The package that restores support for the H.264, H.265, and VC-1 codecs are ready and currently under review. So, Fedora users only need to add the RPM Fusion repository to their systems, then install the “mesa-freeworld” package.
There is currently no information available for openSUSE users on the matter, although it is expected that the approach will be completely similar.
Of course, experienced Linux users may always get the Mesa source package, add the H.264, H.265, and KaVC-1 support flags, and recompile it.
As expected, the removal of H.264, H.265, and VC-1 support from Mesa in Fedora and openSUSE created a wave of dissatisfaction among its users.
Unfortunately, situations like this highlight the stark difference between true community-driven and corporate-backed community-driven Linux distributions.
On the other hand, we cannot blame corporations for attempting to protect themselves from possible future patent infringement lawsuits.
All that is left for us to do is monitor the situation, and as always, our media will keep you updated if anything changes.