Google's WebM May Not Be Patent-Free For Long

Google on Wednesday introduced a new, open source video format called WebM that Google hopes will become "a world-class media format for the open web." In other words, WebM is meant to be a video format that is not encumbered by patent claims from other technology companies and will be free to use by anyone who wants to put video on the Web.

An open video format is seen as an important development for Web technologies, since HTML 5, the next version of the language that governs the Web, will include the capability to embed video onto a Web page without the need for a browser plugin like Microsoft's Silverlight or Adobe's Flash.

The fear is that without an open video format that is free for anyone to use, the cost of producing Web video content would be out of reach for the average Web developer and smaller companies. But there are already signs that patent claims could be made against WebM, making it just as encumbered as other video formats.

Patent Pools

At the heart of the WebM project is the VP8 video codec, which Google has released for public use under a royalty-free license. Competing against VP8 to become t

Artwork: Chip Taylor
he default video codec for the Web is H.264 -- a codec favored by Apple.

The problem with H.264 is that it is subject to individual patent claims held by more than 800 different technology companies such as Adobe Systems, Apple, Microsoft, Panasonic, Yahoo, Yamaha, and many, many others. All of these companies have thrown their patents into what is called a patent pool that is managed by a company called MPEG LA. The purpose of the pool is to stop technology companies with conflicting patents claims from suing each other, and to assert the rights of patent holders against third parties. At the moment, H.264 can be used at no charge until 2016 to encode Web video that is free to end users, but there is no guarantee what will happen with H.264's licensing terms after that.

MPEG LA

The problem with the VP8 codec is that it may violate some of the patents covered in the H.264 patent pool.   In fact, MPEG-LA may go so far as to create a patent pool for the VP8 codec, according to All Things D.

Larry Horn, CEO of MPEG LA, told the blog via e-mail that the patent pool management company is "looking into the prospects" of creating a patent pool for VP8.   In other words, those 800-plus technology companies could assert their patent rights over VP8, ending its current status as an unencumbered video codec.

Jobs Hits 'Send'

Despite potential patent issues with VP8 and WebM, most browser makers are looking to support the WebM format as a native video codec. Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome will all support the WebM format as will Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The only major holdout among browser makers is Apple.

While Cupertino has remained officially silent on the issue, Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly sent one of his famously terse e-mails in response to a question about VP8 and WebM, according to the Register. Instead of a one word response -- as is typical of most purported Jobs e-mail messages -- the Apple chief only sent a link to a highly technical critique of the VP8 codec by Jason Garrett-Glaser, a video codec expert.

It's hard to know what to make of Jobs' meaning by including the link -- assuming it really was Jobs who responded in the first place. Glaser clearly doesn't like VP8 as a codec, calling it "significantly weaker" than H.264 compression. So it could be that Jobs doesn't think much of VP8 as a technology; however, Glaser also says in his critique that one of VP8's features is a "patent time-bomb waiting to happen" and that "VP8 copies way too much from H.264" to be considered patent-free.

It's not clear whether Jobs is just unimpressed with WebM and VP8 or whether the Apple chief was signaling support for forming a patent pool around VP8. Either way, don't count on seeing WebM support in Safari any time soon.

As for VP8, it's anybody's guess as to whether WebM will remain patent-free, and whether Google will back its new project with legal support should MPEG LA come knocking.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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