Remember how Apple's Steve Jobs claimed that the MPEG LA was already in the process of forming a patent pool to 'go after' Google's free VP8 codec when the latter was first released? Well, it seems like the MPEG LA has finally drawn first blood by calling for the submission of patents that it deems essential to the implementation of the VP8 codec used in Google's WebM online video format.
The cold war between Google and the MPEG LA over the legitimacy of the VP8 video codec currently used in YouTube and a handful of browsers may have dragged on long enough, but it remains clear that the MPEG LA is not about to tolerate any form of action that might see itself losing control of what has to be one of the world's widely used video codecs today, especially when royalties are concerned.
And just as we have expected, the firm that specializes in the licensing of patent pools relating to audio-visual technology has decided that the time has finally come to take action. In an announcement posted on its website, MPEG LA has officially declared a patent war on VP8, claiming that the firm is actively socializing the aid of parties which believe that they have in their possession any patents which would be essential to the implementation of the royalty-free codec. The patents in question would then be submitted to the MPEG LA for evaluation, and submissions which are deemed relevant enough will be included for use in the firm's offensive against VP8. Parties interested in taking part in the MPEG LA's patent pool process have until March 18 to make their submissions.
Needless to say, Google would not have any of it. In an email response sent to The Register, the search giant rubbished the MPEG LA's move by claiming that its own licenses require that users not be allowed to make patent claims against the royalty-free codec.
MPEG LA has alluded to a VP8 pool since WebM launched – this is nothing new. The web succeeds with open, community-developed innovation, and the WebM Project brings the same principles to webvideo.
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. We are firmly committed to the project and establishing an open codec for HTML5 video. The WebM license says that if you use the technology, you can't make patent claims against it.
For those wondering why Google would choose to compete head-on with an open and widely-used video codec, one must remember that H.264 is not royalty free, especially where playback capabilities are involved. This means browsers vendors wishing to implement H.264 support in their products have to pay licensing fees to the MPEG LA, a move which popular browser developers Mozilla, Google and Opera are opposed to, seeing it as a move that hurts the 'free web'.
As such, it is little wonder why these developers, along with the W3C body, are willing to support Google's VP8 over H264. And with Microsoft's neutral but generally positive response to the codec, it is clear that VP8 is gaining traction, and that is enough to get the MPEG LA concerned about the state of support the online ecosystem has for H.264.
Needless to say, if enough patent submissions make their way to the firm to allow for the creation of a patent pool, one can be very sure that the first thing MPEG LA will do is to impose royalties on VP8, thus destroying the very reason the codec was created in the first place. After all, there is plenty of money in the form of licensing revenue at stake, considering just how widely used H.264 is at the moment.
However, one might also be able to take comfort in the fact that the MPEG LA's call for patent submission could be considered as an act of desperation. After all, with patent pools for H.264, MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 under its belt, it would have been very easy for the firm to discover instances of patent infringement on VP8's part. The fact that MPEG LA has to find itself calling for patent submissions over the codec could mean that it has got no relevant patents to pin any infringement claims on VP8, thus reinforcing Google's claim that VP8 was indeed designed from ground up to specifically avoid getting into trouble over such patent pools.
Either way, the die has already been cast, and this time, it is the MPEG LA that has drawn first blood in what appears to be a rather unpleasent patent war over the royalty-free VP8 codec. And if one cannot help but wonder why all these sounds so familiar, this is because a similar case has actually happened before. Remember Microsoft's VC-1 run-in with the MPEG LA a long time ago? Oh yeah, Microsoft got thwarted. Let's see how Google will fare this time.