H.261 is, of course, outgunned by any semi-decent more modern video codec, which can, for instance, deliver video with higher resolution at similar bitrates. Those, however, don't have the luxury of having their patents expired with "as good as it can be" certainty.
People on the rtcweb list were quick to point out that having an encoder with modern encoding techniques may by itself be problematic regarding patents. Thankfully, for H.261, a public domain reference-style en- and decoder from 1993 can be found, e.g., at http://wftp3.itu.int/av-arch/video-s
With some initial patching done by Ron Lee this old code builds quite nicely on modern platforms - and as it turns out, the encoder also produces intact video, even on x86_64 machines or on a Raspberry Pi. Quite remarkably portable C code (although not the cleanest style-wise). The original code is slow, though: It barely does realtime encoding of 352x288 video on a 1.65 GHz netbook, and I can barely imagine having it encode video on machines from 1993! Some fun was had in making it faster (it's now about three times faster than before) and the program can now encode from and decode to YUV4MPEG2 files, which is quite a lot more handy than the old mode of operation (still supported), where each frame would consist of three files (.Y, .U, .V).
For those interested, the patched up code is available at https://github.com/maikmerten/p64 - however, be aware that the original coding style (yay, global variables) is still alive and well.
So, is it "useful" to resurrect such an old codebase? Depends on the definition of "useful". For me, as long as it is fun and teaches me something, it's reasonably useful.
So is it fun to toy around with this ancient coding technology? Yes, especially as most modern codecs still follow the same overall design, but H.261 is the most basic instance of "modern" video coding and thus most easy to grasp. Who knows, with some helpful comments here and there that old codebase could be used for teaching basic principles of video coding.