Government Scrutinizes Collection Of Web Video Patents

Last month, MPEG-LA, the group that collects patent royalties for the most popular digital video formats, started asking around for patents that would cover Google’s V8 video codec-a codec that Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is eager to keep patent-free. Today, MPEG-LA’s CEO Larry Horn told the WSJ that the idea that Google’s VP8 video format is patent free is “simply nonsense.” And why was Horn talking to the press in the first place? Because his company is reportedly being investigated by the Justice Department, where lawyers are considering whether Horn’s efforts to slap a patent price tag on Google’s free video technology violates antitrust laws.

Horn wouldn’t say whether his group was under investigation or not, and the Justice Department, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), and Google all declined to comment. He has portrayed the group as simply a one-stop shop for patent licenses.

It’s true that a patent-licensing group doesn’t directly compete with Google; while patent licenses can be burdensome and expensive, they’re not usually considered antitrust problems as long as all players in the industry are able to pay similar rates for licenses.

However, if antitrust regulators find out that a major Google competitor like Apple or Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is trying to sabotage Google’s open video efforts by eagerly contributing patents to an MPEG-LA pool-well, that wouldn’t look so good.

Google has said that MPEG-LA’s statements about VP8 are just aspersions without anything to them; the company is supporting open-source, royalty-free digital video and audio formats that it believes will be the best solution for innovation on the web.

The problem for Google is that the dominant digital video format is still H.264-the patented, not free format where the patents are controlled by MPEG-LA. Especially in hardware devices, from video cameras to cell phones, H.264 is by far the most supported format.