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Patent attack launched on Google's open video codec

H.264 lord rallies troops against 'royalty free' WebM

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Updated MPEG LA – the patent pool organization that handles licensing for the H.264 video codec – is collecting patents for what can only be described as an attack on the competing VP8 codec. Last year, Google open sourced VP8 under a royalty-free license, hoping to create a completely free and open standard for HTML5 web video.

Just after Google open sourced the codec and rolled it into a new web media format known as WebM, MPEG LA chief executive Larry Horn said the organization was looking into a patent-pool license for VP8 and WebM. On Thursday, the organization made an official call to patent holders, asking them to submit patents they believe are essential to Google's codec.

In an email to The Register, MPEG LA said that it is up to patent holders to decide if they wish to build a patent pool for VP8. "The VP8 patent call means that we plan to facilitate a discussion among companies that own patents essential to VP8 to determine if they want to create a patent pool license," the organization said. "While the purpose of the patent call is to begin creating a VP8 license, it is the decision of the patent owners whether or not a license for VP8 will be offered."

Asked if it has discussed the issue with Google, the organization said: "MPEG LA’s call for patents is open to anyone with essential VP8 patents including Google, if they should have any."

Google, according to a statement sent to The Reg, is unmoved. "MPEG LA has alluded to a VP8 pool since WebM launched - this is nothing new," the statement reads. "The web succeeds with open, community-developed innovation, and the WebM Project brings the same principles to web video.

"The vast majority of the industry supports free and open development, and we’re in the process of forming a broad coalition of hardware and software companies who commit to not assert any IP claims against WebM. We are firmly committed to the project and establishing an open codec for HTML5 video.” The WebM license says that if you use the technology, you can't make patent claims against it.

When we asked MPEG LA if it anticipated a court case, it said that in creating a patent pool license, it is actually hoping to reduced that possibility. "Patent owners are the ones who decide whether to enforce patents. MPEG LA facilitates creation of a pool license that would reduce that likelihood. If beneficial, the availability of such license would help avoid the infringement actions by giving users the opportunity to be licensed under essential patents."

Google acquired the VP8 codec early last year when it purchased video compression outfit On2 Technologies in a deal valued at $124.6m dollars, and it was widely expected that the web giant would open source the codec as a way of countering the patented H.264. In May, at the its annual developer conference, Google did just that, saying it wished to create a web video standard unencumbered by licensing fees.

Mozilla and Opera immediately embraced the effort. The stable versions of Google Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox, and Opera now include the codec for use with the fledgling HTML5 video tag, and though Chrome initially offered the royalty-saddled H.264 as well, Google dropped H.264 last month in the hopes of speeding the adoption of WebM.

Google continues to use Adobe Flash – which handles video with H.264 – on YouTube. But the world's largest video-sharing site also offers HTML5 support, and for the past several months, it has encoded new videos with WebM. To a certain extent, Google is playing both sides of the issue. It still needs Flash on YouTube – the HTML5 standard doesn't do everything Google needs it to do – but in the long run, the company prefers a web that handles all video with HTML5 and WebM.

Microsoft and Apple do not. Both are part of MPEG LA's H.264 patent pool, and both include H.264 in their browsers. Before the arrival of WebM, Apple said it preferred H.264 due to the "uncertain patent landscape" of Ogg Theora – an open source WebM predecessor – and Ogg's lack of hardware support, and Microsoft indicated it feels much the same way, saying the intellectual property rights of Ogg and other codecs were "less clear". In a private email that was made very public, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs even said that unnamed people were putting together a patent pool to "go after" Ogg Theora.

After the launch of WebM, when we asked if VP8 was vulnerable to patent attack, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri said the company is confident that the codec is on solid ground. "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.

The same day, Internet Explorer general manager Dean Hachamovitch published a blog post that confirmed Microsoft's commitment to H.264, but he said that IE9 would allow VP8 playback if users installed the codec on their own. "We are strongly committed to making sure that in IE9 you can safely view all types of content in all widely used formats," he said. "When it comes to video and HTML5, we’re all in. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows."

Adobe has committed to offering WebM as well as H.264 with Flash. But it has not said when this will happen.

In its call for patents related to VP8, MPEG LA set an initial deadline of March 18. Presumably, MPEG-LA intends to create a patent pool for VP8 and begin charging license fees for its use. In other words, we're in for quite a fight. ®

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Google and MPEG LA.

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