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Google, MPEG LA kiss and make up in WebM patent spat

Open source VP8 codec now officially legit

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Google and the MPEG LA licensing body have announced that they have reached a licensing agreement for patents related to the Chocolate Factory's WebM streaming media technology, clearing the cloud of potential litigation that has loomed over the format for more than two years.

At issue was VP8, the codec used for the video portion of WebM content (while the Vorbis codec handles the audio portion).

Google gained control of VP8 when it paid $125m to acquire On2 Technologies in 2010 and promptly released the code under a BSD license, claiming it was henceforth a royalty-free codec.

But MPEG LA countered that just because VP8 was open source didn't mean it wasn't covered by patents.

MPEG LA is an organization that licenses pools of multimedia-related patents owned by such companies as Apple, Dolby Laboratories, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Microsoft, and the major consumer electronics outfits.

It has nothing to do with MPEG, the working group that develops standards for digital audio and video compression – nothing, that is, unless you count finding ways for its licensors to make money off their patents, which together cover virtually every minute aspect of the MPEG standards.

In February 2011, MPEG LA called upon its licensors to examine the VP8 spec and submit any patents they thought were essential to it, with the aim of creating a patent pool to wield against companies that implemented the codec.

At the time, Google said it was unconcerned, and ten other companies lent their own patents to help defend against MPEG LA's claims. But behind the scenes, the Chocolate Factory continued to negotiate with MPEG LA for an end to its attack on VP8, and on Thursday it announced that it has finally achieved its goal.

Under the terms of the agreement, MPEG LA has not only granted Google a license to video-compression patents owned by 11 different parties, but Google is also allowed to sublicense those patents to any user of VP8 or of "one next-generation VPx video codec."

In return, MPEG LA says it will no longer seek to form a VP8 patent pool, and that it will be "pleased" to see VP8 made widely available to users.

"This is a significant milestone in Google's efforts to establish VP8 as a widely-deployed web video format," Google deputy general counsel for patents Allen Lo said in a joint statement with MPEG LA. "We appreciate MPEG LA's cooperation in making this happen."

Whether Thursday's agreement will really lead to wider adoption of WebM, however, is unclear. During the years since MPEG LA first launched its patent assault against the format, uncertainty about its legal status has led many potential users to look elsewhere.

In many cases, developers felt it was easier and safer to pay the royalties MPEG LA was asking for the competing H.264 codec, rather than risk implementing a codec where the potential royalties were unknown.

Even the Mozilla Foundation, which was one of the earliest supporters of WebM and had chosen it as the preferred video format for its Firefox browser, eventually caved in to H.264 after admitting that its momentum was too strong to resist.

"H.264 is absolutely required right now to compete on mobile," Mozilla CTO Brandon Eich wrote in a blog post in 2012. "I do not believe that we can reject H.264 content in Firefox on Android or in [Firefox OS] and survive the shift to mobile."

In fact, Eich observed, even Google's Chrome and Android browsers ship with H.264 support built-in, and he didn't see that changing in the foreseeable future, so long as H.264 remains the most popular video format used on the web.

"Don't ask Google why they bought On2 but failed to push WebM to the exclusion of H.264 on Android," Eich wrote. "The question answers itself." ®

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