Recently it was confirmed by the MPEG LA that a license is needed for any use of H.264 and that everyone on the chain is liable. Free software projects are not exempt from this either and neither are end users.
Ben Swartz has an excellent summary about why H.264 should not be used.
A lot of commercial software comes with H.264 encoders and decoders, and some computers arrive with this software preinstalled. This leads a lot of people to believe that they can legally view and create H.264 videos for whatever purpose they like. Unfortunately for them, it ain’t so.
The license that comes with commercial software, such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro, does not cover commercial works. Even so, if you use a commercial software package to create something non-commercial and give it to a friend, they need to be properly licensed also.
You have a license to use their software, provided you don’t make any money, your friends are also all correctly licensed, and you only produce content that complies with the MPEG standard. Using video for a commercial purpose? Producing video that isn’t within MPEG’s parameters? Have friends who use unlicensed encoders like x264, ffmpeg, or xvid? Too bad.
This last thing is actually a particularly interesting point. If you encode a video using one of these (open-source) unlicensed encoders, you’re practising patents without a license, and you can be sued. But hey, maybe you’re just a scofflaw. After all, it’s not like you’re making trouble for anyone else, right? Wrong. If you send a video to a friend who uses a licensed decoder, and they watch it, you’ve caused them to violate their own software license, so they can be sued too.
That’s right folks. Use Handbrake to rip a DVD, or create, view, watch or distribute any H.264 video and you’re liable (royalty free streaming via the Internet has been extended until the end of 2016).
Won’t somebody please think of the children?