MPEG LA Threatens Google’s VP8 With Patent Pool License

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Google made a splash earlier this week by releasing its VP8 codec under an open-source, royalty-free license, thereby providing an open, high-quality alternative to H.264 and Ogg Theora. But if H.264 licensing group MPEG LA gets its way, the VP8 codec won’t remain free for long.

Google’s WebM Project, which was announced Wednesday, is part of its attempt to build up industrywide support for VP8 playback through HTML5. By offering VP8 under a royalty-free license — effectively giving it away for free — Google hopes that it can convince browser makers and video publishers who might have shied away from open-source codec Ogg Theora a high-quality alternative. It also positioning VP8 against H.264, which is backed by Microsoft and Apple, but hasn’t gotten support from the open source community because it’s encumbered by patents and licenses.

But MPEG LA, which controls the patents and license for H.264, could attempt to change Google’s plans for a “free” VP8. In an email exchange with AllThingsD’s John Paczkowski, MPEG LA CEO Larry Horn wrote that the licensing group could assemble a patent pool license in an attempt to extract fees from Google or other companies that choose to use the VP8 codec. From the article:

JP: Let me ask you this: Are you creating a patent pool license for VP8 and WebM? Have you been approached about creating one?

Larry Horn: Yes, in view of the marketplace uncertainties regarding patent licensing needs for such technologies, there have been expressions of interest from the market urging us to facilitate formation of licenses that would address the market’s need for a convenient one-stop marketplace alternative to negotiating separate licenses with individual patent holders in accessing essential patent rights for VP8 as well as other codecs, and we are looking into the prospects of doing so.

The exchange comes just a few weeks after Apple CEO Steve Jobs warned via email that a patent pool was being assembled to “go after Theora and other ‘open source’ codecs.” If you believe that Jobs knew of Google’s plans for VP8 at that time (as we do), it’s likely that this was a threat directed not just at Theora, but at Google as well.

There are a few caveats here. First, despite several similar warnings against Theora, MPEG LA has never acted to enforce its patents against that open-source codec. But Theora has been around since 2000, and as such one could argue that as a result, MPEG LA would have a difficult time enforcing the patents that it supposedly infringes on. But VP8 is more or less brand-spanking new, and therefore fair game.

Second, Google has a lot more resources than Xiph.org — the group that controls Theora — does, and won’t be going down without a fight. It spent more than $120 million to purchase On2 and its technology, and wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t committed to making VP8 open source. Not only that, but the search giant said it’s done its due diligence and is confident that VP8 doesn’t infringe on others’ patents.

In an exchange with The Register, Google product manager Mike Jazayeri said, “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.”

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