Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are Patents Killing HTML5 Video?

WebM logoYou may recall from my post in February, WebM, H.264 Debate Still Going, that the H.264 video codec is considered patent-encumbered (which resulted in its dismissal from the HTML5 specification) and Google has argued that its own WebM / VP8 codec is made up of patents it owns, releasing it as royalty-free.

We all had to know it wouldn't be that simple. MPEG-LA, the licensing entity for multimedia codecs such as H.264, put out a call for patents related to VP8, the underlying technology in WebM, back on February 11, leaving it open for a month. Ostensibly MPEG-LA cast its wide net in the hopes that it could find existing patents that it can then use (perhaps by forming a patent pool or preparing for a lawsuit) to lay claim to rights over technology in VP8.

In April, Google started its own call for patent holders and formed the WebM Community Cross-License (CCL) initiative. Its description from its site:

The WebM Community Cross-License (CCL) initiative enables the web community to further support the WebM Project. Google, Matroska and the Xiph.Org Foundation make the various components of WebM openly available on royalty-free terms. By joining the CCL, member organizations likewise agree to license patents they may have that are essential to WebM technologies to other members of the CCL.

With no official announcement, MPEG-LA revealed in an interview (WebM Patent Fight Ahead for Google?) that twelve parties had come forward with patents they felt were covered in VP8. If those claims hold up then MPEG-LA's next step is to create a patent pool, which allows even more patents and patent holders to be added to the mix. It also means Google will be faced with either paying for licensing from that patent pool or defending itself in a lawsuit. Given Google's US $105 million outlay to acquire the VP8 codec (via its acquisition of On2) already, you can bet some number crunching will take place to evaluate the value of either approach.

MPEG-LA most likely doesn't care whether or not VP8 wins over H.264. All MPEG-LA is interested in is getting its licensing fees from both of them. While MPEG-LA doesn't necessarily fit the model of a standard patent troll (it isn't located in Texas), if you read my post from yesterday, A Patent Trolling Primer, you can see some parallels.

These are posts I have written both about patent abuse and the H.264 vs. WebM debate. Instead of a recap of each here, you can get more history in these posts:

Back in January, Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG, a working group of ISO/IEC and not related to MPEG-LA) issued a statement that it plans to move forward with a royalty-free video encoding standard. Sadly, I don't have any news on its progress. If you have any, please comment below and let me know.

Other Media Types

As proponents of Ogg Vorbis will tell you on the We Want Ogg site, while they claim that it is a royalty-free and unpatented audio format, they cannot seem to get either Apple or Microsoft to support it in their browsers — even though the code to embed it natively in the browser is available (a better solution than a plug-in). In this case, owning patents related to audio technologies as a browser maker is motivation to not support an open format.

Google's WebP image format, which uses some of the still-image compression tricks from VP8, isn't being supported in Mozilla (Mozilla rejects WebP image format, Google adds it to Picasa). While patent issues around VP8 may certainly creep into WebP, in this case the argument to refuse support for the image format comes down to its lack of clear benefits to other image formats. If VP8 compression formats become patent-encumbered then you can bet this new format will die on the vine.

Related

Update: March 7, 2013

Today on Google's WebM blog:

Today Google Inc. and MPEG LA, LLC announced agreements that will result in MPEG LA ending its efforts to form a VP8 patent pool.

There is no indication of how much money changed hands.

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