9 Comments

Summary:

Will the future of web video be free or come with a patent-licensing bill? The question has no clear answer at this point– which is why a f…

Online video - video chat - people looking at computer
photo: Corbis / Heide Benser

Will the future of web video be free or come with a patent-licensing bill? The question has no clear answer at this point– which is why a format war over web video continues to brew. Now MPEG-LA, the patent-licensing organization that collects patent royalties from users of the most popular video formats, has issued an official call for patents that cover V8, the video codec technology that Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is making part of its WebM project to promote patent-free multimedia online.

Google has open-sourced the V8 format after it bought it last year, and any person or company can use V8 for free. By suggesting that patents are out there that actually cover V8-and saying it’s looking to gather up such patents and demand licensing fees-MPEG-LA has practically declared web-video war on Google. Google has said it will defend its project and build a coalition to support “free and open development” on the web.

One big question has to be whether tech corporations, and particularly Google rivals like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) or Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), will answer this patent “call to arms.” Both Apple and Microsoft get money from MPEG-LA because they own patents on the popular H.264 video format-a format that Google kicked out of its own browser last month.

MPEG-LA is the licensing organization for several different video formats, including the video formats used in popular devices like DVD players. It works like this: each patent pool has a list of licensor companies, which can number in the dozens or in the hundreds. When companies make something like a DVD player or a computer that can read DVD’s, they have to make royalty payments to MPEG-LA, which then divides it up among the list of licensor companies.

One of the patent pools already administered by MPEG-LA is for H.264 video, which is the most popular codec for reading and encoding web video online. Google sparked off conflict over web video when it announced last month that it wouldn’t support H.264, because it’s patented. Instead, Google is promoting its WebM project, which promotes patent-free, open formats including V8 (video) and Vorbis (audio).

A Google spokesperson said via email that the talk about a VP8 patent pool is nothing new: “MPEG LA has alluded to a VP8 pool since WebM launched… 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.”

Holders of “essential patents” for the V8 patent pool have until March 18 to submit them for consideration to MPEG-LA. If a patent pool gets formed, the threat of litigation is sure to follow. MPEG-LA and any licensor companies are surely aware that Google won’t hesitate to defend its formats from patents. But if MPEG-LA can make the ultimate future of WebM appear to be in doubt, it could cause video companies faced with urgent decisions about what formats to support to veer away from WebM.

  1. MPEG-LA are crooks. Everyone’s out to make a buck and they are trying to collect royalties they don’t deserve. Google is doing a good open-sourcing everything and making the community as a whole to benefit from that action. Down with all of those evil companies that bully others with patent litigation, etc. MPEG-LA and other patent bullies need to get a life and get a REAL job that they can honestly and earnestly earn a living from.

    Share
  2. As much as I agree with you in nearly every regard, with a slightly more “inside” view on mpeg and v8, I can say that MPEG-LA does have a pretty valid argument:
    One only needs to analyse the source code for v8 against known properties of h264 to see the similarities.
    In the vast majority of regards, h264 and v8 are precisely the same, so google’s only defense has to be that the concepts behind h264 are public domain.

    This doesn’t look good.

    Share
  3. @Sephamorr, You really have to be specific on what those similarities are. You can find similarities between MS Office and OpenOffice, between IE and Firefox. Software with similar purpose are bind to have similarities. Unless they have blanket patents covering all aspects of video decoding, they really come up with clear non-trivial similarities.

    Share
  4. This is, frankly, fantastic news.
    The MPEG-LA has been spreading fear and dought for years without a wiff of anything to back it up.
    “oh, you should all pay us, because else using the free alternatives at some point we might sue them for patents we arn’t specifying yet!”.
    It was a smart scheme; they could discourage use of revil codecs, charge what they want, and not have to defend any of their claims. This has been going on years and could have gone on many more.

    Now, finaly, they actualy want to do a legal challange the whole thing can be settled one way or the other.
    If they do own patents that it breachs, thats absolutely fine! Defend them for sure, and let other free codecs them emerge to revil you.
    If not, let their claims fall flat and stop scare-mongering people into using your system.

    The web needs free codecs, even if they are a bit bigger filesize for the same quality, it easily worth it for people using Ubuntu/Firefox to not have to pay, or for content creators not to have the constant “free as long as we let it be” hanging over them. For people producing their own video content it also means higher revenues from adverts, as none has to go to the lisenceing (as it does currently with sites like youtube and blip.tv). Alternatively, of course, it means more adverts to pay for youtube (etc) as they need to pay the MpegLA per video.

    So one way or another we do all pay for h264, and while I also support patents 100% there DOES need to be a clear legal position on these codecs asap so people can make informed choices.

    Share
  5. May holders of software patents burn in eternal Hell.

    Share
  6. This is exactly why software patents should be eliminated. Patenting ideas is not possible so why is it possible with software?

    I hope Google wins this one because it’ll finally set the stage for possible change. Not to mention, it’ll put another troll in its place.

    Share
  7. It’s interesting to see that the MPEG-LA is actually picking on someone quite capable of fighting back.

    And quite willing to fight back – when Oracle sent Google a declaration of total war, Google responded with a comprehensive counterattack and “bring it on”.

    Interesting times.

    Share
  8. Screw them. There are other formats out there that can be used. And if necessary Google can convince the open source community to create one for them just as good.

    Share
  9. @Sephamorr
    VP8 is hardly new, being based on VP5, VP4, VP3…
    No one is going to risk their patents (that they’re currently raking money in on) being invalidated due to prior art.
    Not that it’s not possible, but everyone’s going to be looking at 10 year old code “just in case”.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post