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Google open video codec may face patent clash

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The group that controls the patented H.264 video codec backed by Apple and Microsoft is "looking into" the creation of a patent pool license for VP8, the codec Google open sourced to much fanfare this week.

Google opened sourced VP8 in an effort to provide a royalty-free alternative to H.264 for HTML5 web video, but in an email to AllThingsDigital, MPEG-LA chief executive Larry Horn indicated the patent pool organization will challenge this stance.

Asked if the MPEG-LA was creating a patent pool license for VP8 and WebM - a larger open source media standard that includes VP8 - Horn said:

Yes. In view of the marketplace uncertainties regarding patent licensing needs for such technologies, there have been expressions of interest from the market urging us to facilitate formation of licenses that would address the market’s need for a convenient one-stop marketplace alternative to negotiating separate licenses with individual patent holders in accessing essential patent rights for VP8 as well as other codecs, and we are looking into the prospects of doing so.

An MPEG-LA spokesperson confirmed the comments in an email to The Reg.

Microsoft and Apple are members of the MPEG-LA patent pool that licenses H.264, and both companies have backed the patented codec for use in their browsers with HTML5 video. Apple is already using it with Safari, and Microsoft plans to use it with Internet Explorer 9.

MPEG-LA's potential VP8 patent pool could include patents behind H.264, but it might include others as well. The organization's patent pools span several media standards. In an email to a Reg reader earlier this week, Steve Jobs indicated Apple isn't likely to embrace VP8, and in the past, he has claimed that a patent pool was being put together to "go after" Ogg Theora, an open source codec that predates WebM.

In response to questions from The Reg at Google I/O, the annual developer conference where VP8 was open sourced, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri indicated company believes the codec will stand up to claims from outside patent holders.

"We have done a pretty through analysis of VP8 and On2 Technologies prior to the acquisition and since then, and we are very confident with the technology and that's why we're open sourcing," he said.

If the MPEG-LA sets up a patent pool license for VP8 - which Google acquired as part of its $124.6 million acquisition of video compression outfit On2 Technologies - odds are that we'll see some sort of clash between the two organizations.

"This would be a way of MPEG-LA throwing down the gauntlet," noted open source advocate Florian Muller tells The Reg. If MPEG-LA sets up a license that requires royalties for VP8, Google isn't likely to comply. The whole idea behind open sourcing VP8 was to create a royalty-free codec for web video.

And of course, this isn't just about Google. Mozilla and Opera are already using the open source codec in developer builds of their browsers, and the hope is to make this a standard used across the industry.

Mueller applauds Google for open sourcing the codec, but he wants more detailed assurances from the company that the technology is safe from patent attack and he equates the situation to uncertainty surrounding Google's Android OS, which has seen patent holders muscle not Google but its partners.

"Microsoft collects royalties and others, and they said that many more with have to pay if they use Android, and Apple is suing HTC," he tells us.

Microsoft at least has indicated that it is not opposed to netizens using VP8 as long as they download it themselves. The company does not plan to include it in Internet Explorer 9. ®

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