Google (s GOOG) is announcing a new community cross-licensing initiative for its WebM open source video format this morning, which includes backing from major CE makers like Samsung, LG Electronics and Cisco. (s CSCO) Google open-sourced WebM about a year ago, hoping to establish an open and royalty-free video format for the web that could eventually replace today’s de facto web video standard, H.264. The cross-licensing initiative is meant to ensure that companies interested in using WebM aren’t scared off by threats of patent litigation.
The whole cross-licensing approach is a little bit curious. Here’s how it works: Google still believes it holds all the rights related to the VP8 video codec that’s at the core of WebM. However, if it turned out that some of WebM’s technology was covered by a patent held by Cisco for example, Cisco would automatically grant a royalty-free license for this technology to all of the other participants of the initiative. Mike Jazayeri, director of product management at Google for WebM, was quick to point out during a conversation last week that this “doesn’t imply that any of these companies have licenses” related to the format. But you know, just in case…
This isn’t the first time big companies band together like this to use cross-licensing to protect themselves against open source-related patent litigation. The Open Invention Network, whose members include IBM, (s IBM) Sony (s SNE) and Red Hat, (s RHT) uses a comparable approach to issue royalty-free licenses of Linux-related patents.
That Google now establishes a similar alliance for WebM shows how serious patent-related issues are for the format. Apple CEO (s AAPL) Steve Jobs threatened early on to attack open video codecs, and H.264 patent pool administrator MPEG LA finally came out of the woodwork in February and issued a call for patents to form a WebM patent pool. A patent pool like this it could eventually be used to go after anyone embracing WebM, including the companies that just joined the cross-licensing initiative. Jazayeri tried to downplay this development, saying that the cross-licensing initiative was well in the works when MPEG LA made its announcement. “They have raised some vague claims and really haven’t back that up,” he said about the MPEG LA.
Still, all the saber-rattling by Apple, MPEG LA and others may have dissuaded some from using WebM. Jazayeri said the project was happy about the format’s current adoption rate, but admitted that “there have been some questions raised” about possible legal implications of using the format.
One of the companies that has officially been on the sidelines is Microsoft. (s MSFT) Redmond initially stated that it wasn’t going to support WebM due to legal concerns, but quickly softened its stance by saying that Internet Explorer users would be able to play content encoded with the format if they installed a third-party codec. Google has since published a plug-in that makes it possible to play WebM content in IE 9, and Jazayeri told me that Microsoft wasn’t just all talk about enabling support for the codec. “Their engineers and our engineers worked closely together,” he said.
Maybe that’s the biggest part of today’s announcement: It shows a growing commitment between big companies like LG and Samsung to take a chance on WebM. It will still take some time before we’ll actually see the codec becoming part of their products, but Jazayeri said that he expects consumer hardware capable of WebM encoding and decoding in U.S. shelves by the end of this or early next year.