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Summary:

Licensing outlet MPEG LA has announced that it is forming a patent pool for VP8, the codec at the core of Google’s open source video format WebM. Google’s response? Bring it on. It’s time to “put up or shut up,” as one WebM supporter put it.

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Updated: Get ready for the next big patent fight: MPEG LA is officially getting ready to form a patent pool to control and license VP8, the codec at the core of Google’s WebM open source video format. MPEG LA announced its call for patents on Thursday, asking “any party that believes it has patents that are essential to the VP8 video codec specification” to submit these by March 18.

Google’s response to this? Bring it on. “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,” a Google spokesperson told me today via email, adding that Google remains committed to establishing WebM as an open format for HTML5 web video.

Google released WebM as an open source video format last May. One of the main reasons behind the move was MPEG LA’s control of the popular H.264 video format. While MPEG LA is offering free H.264 licenses to web video platforms that offer their content for free, paid services, hardware makers and software developers have to pay for the use of H.264.

MPEG LA’s H.264 license is only one of a number of patent pools administered by the company. The theory behind these pools is that companies using a format like H.264 can get a license covering all related patents from MPEG LA instead of licensing it from each party individually. However, MPEG LA’s patent licensing has often been criticized, with some even calling the company greedy and corrupt.

Supporters of H.264 have long argued that WebM is also encumbered by patents. Apple CEO Steve Jobs already warned last April that patent pools may be formed against open video formats. Apple is one of the most vocal backers of H.264. The company is using it to bring video to the iPad and other iOS devices, and Jobs has been touting the combination of H.264 and HTML5 as an alternative to Flash.

So does this mean WebM is in trouble? Not necessarily. Companies like MPEG LA regularly announce calls for patents, and not all of those lead to the successful formation of a patent pool. For example, MPEG LA and others in the business of licensing patent pools unsuccessfully tried to form pools for the LTE wireless standard.

Christopher “Monty” Montgommery, the mastermind behind the Ogg Theora open-source video codec, believes that WebM developers have not much to worry about. Theora has in many ways been a precursor to WebM. He told me MPEG LA has been making threats against Theora as well as WebM for a long time, and that it’s about time for the company to “put up or shut up.”

Montgomery said that it would actually be helpful if MPEG LA finally published details about the patents that supposedly touch VP8. “The second a patent number is involved, we get to know what the claim is,” he said, adding, “Maybe something completely unexpected pops up; someone really does have a patent no one saw coming.” In that case, he said, the WebM project could simply “sidestep it, work around it, cut it out immediately.”

However, Montgomery believes it’s more likely that MPEG LA will get patents that “look superficially plausible” as opposed to any concrete challenges. “MPEG-LA is trying to make it illegal to ever compete with them again by sewing an entire industry field up into an impenetrable patent thicket,” he said, adding: “They’re not maneuvering based on concrete claims. They simply want competition to be illegal.”

Still, the escalating conflict between MPEG LA and the WebM Project could slow WebM’s adoption just when Google is making a strong push to make the format more popular. Google announced last month that its Chrome web browser won’t support H.264 anymore and instead solely use WebM for HTML5 video playback.

Update: An MPEG LA spokesperson disputed the notion that MPEG LA exercises control over video formats like H.264 in an email sent to us after this article got published. He added: “We offer to facilitate creation of licenses of convenience to address market needs, and our call for patents will help determine whether there is sufficient need to justify providing such service.”

Image courtesy of the U.S. Army / Tim Hipps. Used with permission.

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