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Google and friends wrap open video codec in patent shield

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Google has announced a patent-sharing program around WebM in an effort to guard the open source web video format from legal attack.

On Monday, with a blog post, the company introduced the WebM Community Cross-License (CCL) initiative, which brings together companies willing to license each other's patents related to the format. Founding members include AMD, Cisco Systems, Logitech, MIPS Technologies, Matroska, Mozilla, Opera, Samsung, Texas Instruments, and the Xiph.org Foundation, as well as Google.

"CCL members are joining this effort because they realize that the entire web ecosystem – users, developers, publishers, and device makers – benefits from a high-quality, community developed, open-source media format," said Matt Frost, Google senior business product manager for the WebM Project. "We look forward to working with CCL members and the web standards community to advance WebM's role in HTML5 video."

WebM is based on the VP8 video codec that Google acquired when it purchased On2 Technologies last year in a deal worth $124.6 million. Google hopes that the format as a royalty-free standard will replace H.264, the royalty-encumbered codec built into both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari for use with HTML5 video. But MPEG-LA – the patent-pool organization that licenses H.264 on behalf of Microsoft, Apple, and others – has indicated that it's putting together a patent pool to license WebM as well, challenging Google's claims that the format is royalty-free.

When MPEG-LA made its call for patents related to WebM in February, Google said it was in the process of putting together a coalition of companies who vow not to assert their patents against the format. And now that coalition has arrived.

When Google first introduced WebM last year, Mozilla and Opera promptly built the format into their browsers. Initially, Google Chrome offered both WebM and H.264 for HTML5 video, but Google has since said that Chrome will drop H.264. This has yet to actually happen, but the company has assured us it will.

Apple's Safari and Microsoft Internet Explorer only offer H.264 for HTML5 video, but Google has worked with Microsoft to offer software that integrates WebM with Windows through the Microsoft Media Foundation (MF) API. This will allow not only Internet Explorer but also Windows Media Player to use WebM.

That said, the onus is on the user to install the software themselves. Microsoft will not bundle WebM with its OS or its browser. On some level, the company is wary of legal threats. But from the very beginning, Google has claimed that the format is on solid legal ground. "We have done a pretty thorough 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," Google product manager Mike Jazayeri told us last May.

According to a March report citing people familiar with the matter, the US Department of Justice is investigating MPEG-LA over its efforts to undermine the royalty-free nature of WebM. ®

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