12 companies own patents essential to Google's VP8 codec

Google logoMPEG LA, the self-styled one stop shop for motion video patent licenses, says that 12 different companies have come forward with patents "essential" to the VP8 algorithm championed by Google as a royalty-free compression standard. The organization met with these companies in June to discuss the formation of a patent pool, though there has not yet been a decision to determine whether a pool should be formed, or what its terms and conditions might be.

The organization started the search for VP8 patents in February, with the initial call for companies to come forward ending in March. That deadline came and went without comment from the company, so streamingmedia.com interviewed a spokesman by e-mail to find out what the current situation was. MPEG LA did not disclose which 12 companies held patents it felt to be essential to VP8, nor did it say how many patents there were in total. The group also did not say how many patents had been submitted for evaluation only to be deemed inessential.

The VP8 video codec is an integral part of WebM, the video file format that Google first proposed last May. WebM is marketed as a royalty-free format, in contrast to the widely used royalty-incurring H.264 codec. These royalties prevent H.264 from being incorporated into specifications such as HTML5's native video support, as W3C, the group that governs the HTML standard, has a policy of only accepting royalty-free technology. Google maintains that although VP8 is patented, all the relevant patents were owned by On2, the company that originally developed VP8. Google's purchase of On2 was finalized in 2010, and the search giant has since offered perpetual, royalty-free licenses to the patents.

With so many companies submitting patents of their own to MPEG LA, formation of a patent pool becomes much more likely, and the chance that WebM will retain its royalty-free position shrinks accordingly. That isn't yet a foregone conclusion, however—though the companies have come forward and made initial submissions, they may decide that it's not worth forming a patent pool for some reason. Even if they do, the decision to enforce their patents against VP8 users is separate; MPEG LA doesn't enforce patents (it has sued companies, but for breach of contract, not patent infringement), and so it would be up to the individual members of the pool to take legal action against infringers.

Though the lawsuits could be brought against individual companies using VP8, rather than Google itself, it's plausible that Google would get involved, to defend the value of its $100 million purchase of On2—though VP8 users will no doubt be reluctant to assume that such assistance will be forthcoming, as victims of Android lawsuits have had to fend for themselves. Indeed, with VP8 integrated into Android, those companies already being sued for Android patent infringement may yet find themselves on the wrong end of more legal action.

When asked for comment, Google's response to streamingmedia.com was substantially the same as it always has been when asked about VP8 and patents; MPEG LA's patent pool discussion is "nothing new," that the "vast majority of the industry supports free and open development," and that Google is "firmly committed to [...] establishing an open codec for HTML5 video." The company also referenced its own effort to create a royalty-free patent-licensing initiative. However, if the 12 companies that have come forward aren't members of that initiative, its value could be negligible.

Tags: Google

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