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'Free' H.264 a Precursor To WebM Patent War? 204

Posted by Soulskill
from the neverending-cycle dept.
webmink writes "The MPEG LA seem unwilling to explain why they have extended their 'free' H.264 streaming video policy now. This article unpacks the history of MPEG LA and then suggests the obvious — it's all because of WebM — and the worrying — maybe it's preparing the ground for opening a third front in the patent war against Google."
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'Free' H.264 a Precursor To WebM Patent War?

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  • Patented Standards (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GuerillaRadio (818889) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:21AM (#33423764)

    It seems an obvious requirement now to me that any 'international standards', as H.264 is described in TFA, should not be written by a consortium that have a collection of patents on the only possible implementation of the standard!

    I'm not sure how this would be ensured - maybe the same consortium that pool the defensive patent pool for Linux could start a standards body based around this simple idea.

    • by ducomputergeek (595742) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:45AM (#33423820)

      ARM and W-CDMA work in similar ways. ARM happens to own the patents and licenses them to whomever for a reasonable fee. W-CDMA works in much the same way as H.264. You have a bunch of companies that decide to share patents into one resource. It makes it easy for other companies to pay 1 fee and then use the technology. And H.264's licensing terms are reasonable. There is a cost of doing business. I know that is not popular around here, but it's the truth.

      Unfortunately it's going to be harder for Free software going forward. Try writing an opensource point-of-sale or e-commerce program that can directly process credit cards. You can't without spending around $20,000 for PA-DSS auditing. And I see more of these types of industry barriers to entry popping up.

      • by GuerillaRadio (818889) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:01AM (#33424054)

        Unfortunately it's going to be harder for Free software going forward. Try writing an opensource point-of-sale or e-commerce program that can directly process credit cards. You can't without spending around $20,000 for PA-DSS auditing. And I see more of these types of industry barriers to entry popping up.

        It won't be harder, it will be impossible - it destroys the mechanism of Free / Open Source software. The way you put it is as if the rise of FOSS is just some kind of unfortunate minority part of the computing world that will be affected, rather than one of the most important, game changing event in the recent history of computing.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:52AM (#33424192)

        ARM and W-CDMA work in similar ways. ARM happens to own the patents and licenses them to whomever for a reasonable fee. W-CDMA works in much the same way as H.264. You have a bunch of companies that decide to share patents into one resource. It makes it easy for other companies to pay 1 fee and then use the technology.

        Yes, that's how it works.

        And H.264's licensing terms are reasonable

        But here I disagree. The difference between H264 and the above is its application space: both ARM and CDMA have a license covering production of equipment, whereas H264 is offered as a user license. The situation would be comparable if an end-user were charged for every communication over W-CDMA, or every programmer was billed for generating ARM machine-code (using a licensed compiler etc).

        As it stands, end users are still liable for royalties concerning the codec in addition to the patent fees they may have already paid for by purchasing a digital camera / BR player. That's why the MPEG licensing terms are considered non-free.

      • ARM and W-CDMA work in similar ways. ARM happens to own the patents and licenses them to whomever for a reasonable fee. W-CDMA works in much the same way as H.264. You have a bunch of companies that decide to share patents into one resource. It makes it easy for other companies to pay 1 fee and then use the technology. And H.264's licensing terms are reasonable. There is a cost of doing business. I know that is not popular around here, but it's the truth.

        But for comparison here, if I own an ARM computer and make a video or some kind of word processing document on it, there's absolutely nothing stopping you from opening that video or that document on your computer with an x86 chip (at least nothing related to the origin of the file being an ARM-powered device).

        If you create a video or audio file and encode it with codec XYZ, you can bet your sweet pile of software patents that when you send that file to me I'm going to have to use information about that code

    • That makes no sense (Score:2, Interesting)

      by SuperKendall (25149)

      It seems an obvious requirement now to me that any 'international standards', as H.264 is described in TFA, should not be written by a consortium that have a collection of patents on the only possible implementation of the standard!

      How does that make any sense?

      In todays heavily legal world, the ONLY kinds of standards you can rely on are ones where members of the standards group hold patents and pledges the protected use of same to people following that standard.

      Any other approach pretty much ensures that (

      • by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:05AM (#33423894)

        In todays heavily legal world, the ONLY kinds of standards you can rely on are ones where members of the standards group hold patents and pledges the protected use of same to people following that standard.

        Erm, no. You can't rely on companies and individuals implementing a standard. They'll implement anything they like regardless, and then you'll have interoperability issues, pretty much as we have now anyway.

        If you want a standard to be reliably implemented in a wide range of systems, you have to take out the "implementation" part of the equation. That means, distribute a public domain or BSD library which does all the hard work, and let everyone piggyback on that for nothing.

    • by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:46AM (#33425974) Homepage Journal

      I found a link from TFA to be quite interesting:

      Where does WebM fit in?
      WebM combines the Ogg Vorbis audio codec with the VP8 video codec Google obtained through its February 2010 acquisition of On2 Technologies for $133.9 million. On2 has a long history in codecs: Its earlier VP3 technology formed the foundation of Ogg Theora, and its VP6 was widely used in video streaming on the Web by virtue of its inclusion in Adobe Systems' Flash Player. VP8 had only been under development until this week, but now Google has issued the specification for the technology, source code and a software developer kit to let programmers use it, and a collection of partners who endorsed it in varying degrees. In contrast to how On2 handled its codecs and to how an industry group called MPEG LA licenses patents for using H.264, Google released WebM as a royalty-free technology. That means among other things that nobody will have to pay for using it and that open-source software projects can incorporate it directly.

      Hooray! Free codecs for everyone! Who could possibly be unhappy about this?
      The 26 companies and organizations that have contributed to the pool of H.264 patents. Among them: Microsoft, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba. Apple holds a single patent in the pool, too. It's not cheap to research video technology, and it's not cheap to license it, either. For example, even though Microsoft holds 73 patents in the H.264 pool, the company pays twice as much for its rights to ship H.264 support in Windows 7 as it receives back from MPEG LA for its share of the rights.

      What's MPEG LA doing about it?
      At a minimum, it's raising doubts about whether VP8 infringes video patents, and maybe more. Group spokesman Tom O'Reilly won't comment about whether VP8 infringes any H.264 patents, but he did say Thursday that MPEG LA is considering a new patent pool that would license any patents used in VP8 technology: "Although we assume virtually all codecs are based on patented technology, the AVC/H.264 License we offer is limited to providing coverage for the use of AVC/H.264." Added MPEG LA Chief Executive Larry Horn, "Google has the right to disclaim royalties for its own technologies, if any, but it doesn't have the right to disclaim them without appropriate permissions for technologies owned by others, or otherwise contribute to the infringement of those technologies

      Why use H.264 when Google is giving us WebM for free?

  • Yeah... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by webheaded (997188) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:24AM (#33423768) Homepage
    I'm still rooting for Google's format. I don't care about free as in money so much as free as in open source. I don't see how it could possibly be sustainable for every single company that makes a browser from here on out to have to pay a fee to use this codec. If they put H.264 into the HTML 5 spec, that is only going to make it a pain in the ass for browser developers and open source users. It's stupid. This isn't helpful...it's just slight of hand. "Look it's free!" Um no...it actually isn't free at all. I wish people writing all the other articles would acknowledge that a little better. This changes nothing.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by beelsebob (529313)

      I don't care about free as in money so much as free as in open source.

      Then you should be quite happy with h264 – the biggest encoder (x264) is open source, and there are plenty of open source decoder libraries for it.

      • Re:Yeah... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by PybusJ (30549) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:07PM (#33427078)

        Not really.

        Unless you have an encoder license covering x264 then MPEG-LA still claim you are violating their patents if you use x264 to encode. MPEG-LA don't give out encoder licenses to end users (not even if you offer to pay them), but only to encoder suppliers. Even though I have a licensed H.264 decoder supplied with my OS, it is only licensed to play content created with a licensed encoder. I don't have, and can't obtain, a license to play x264 encoded video. So the MPEG-LA still claim I am violating their patents if I play something you encoded. Both of us _could_ get sued.

        People who want "free as in open source", are not usually interested in free as in I can download some code but don't have patent licenses for it. This announcement has done nothing, nothing at all, to obviate the need to encoder and decoder licenses, this was only about streaming licenses -- yet another license you needed on top of encoder licenses and decoder licenses.

        So x264 is maybe useful for "encoder manufacturers"; they can use its code in their products, if they can find a way to do so under the terms of the GPL[0]. Google use x264 based tools to encode youtube videos, and they have registered themselves as an encoder supplier to get the patent license (even though they only supply themselves). Since they don't distribute the encoder they create, they don't have to comply with the patent clauses in the GPL. Google are about the only people to legally benefit from x264, the rest of us don't have the size/funds for that option.

        You can take the view that you don't care about infringing patents and ignore the MPEG-LA (fine, but in which case this announcement doesn't matter to you), or you do care (in which case this announcement still doesn't allow you to use open source H.264 codecs). There is *nothing* in this announcement for Open Source video users.

        [0] The GPL, which x264 claims it is licensed under says: "if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program."

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I don't see how it could possibly be sustainable for every single company that makes a browser from here on out to have to pay a fee to use this codec.

      They don't have to, nor should it have anything to do with the BROWSER. Mozilla has successfully distracted most everyone from the issue: the browser shouldn't care one bit about what media files it's presenting, because it should rely on the system frameworks for that content. If you're on Windows or OS X, it's a non-issue. If you're on Linux, there are plenty of legal ways to install an h.264 codec.

      If you have a philosophical objection to its usage, you can simply choose not to view that content.

      If they put H.264 into the HTML 5 spec, that is only going to make it a pain in the ass for browser developers and open source users.

      What

      • by AVryhof (142320)

        Mozilla should just use the libavcodec installed on the system and be done with it....that way, you have the free version distributed with Ubuntu (the one with the restricted modules disabled -- that should also come with Mozilla on all platforms) and you can simply enable restricted extras or install anything that includes the restricted libavcodec modules to make the rest work.

        It would provide the consistent user experience they are looking for, as well as the ability to play a whole host of audio/video f

      • by hedwards (940851)
        Bullshit, citation necessary, what formats are you referring to? A browser can't do much without support for JPEG and GIF. Flash is a plug in as are Windows Media and Quicktime. You don't have to install the plug ins if you don't want to. Which coincidentally is how Mozilla is handling the problem of H.264 as well, if you get the plug in you can play it. They just can't include anything that's going to obligate them to pay a licensing free.
        • Flash is a plug in as are Windows Media and Quicktime. You don't have to install the plug ins if you don't want to. Which coincidentally is how Mozilla is handling the problem of H.264 as well, if you get the plug in you can play it.

          BZZZT!

          Nope, in fact, that's the point, that's what I've been saying for months now -- things would be much simpler if Firefox allowed this kind of thing to be based on plugins, even better if they simply delegated to the system's native media framework. They don't, they refuse to -- I know of no way to play H.264 in an HTML5 video tag in Firefox.

    • by westlake (615356)

      I'm still rooting for Google's format.

      H.264 evolved outside the web.

      How the geek expects Google to stop this sort of thing from happening is beyond me.

      Google and On2 are not a licensor of any of the patents in MPEG LA's patent pools.

      The licensors are the global giants in R&D and manufacturing - companies like Mitsubishi, Philips, Sony and Samsung - and they have had the better part of ten years to commercialize H.264.

      WebM in its current state is a low-bandwidth distribution codec for YouTube, not a p

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dave420 (699308)
      There is no talk of making any codec mandatory for HTML5 video. None. HTML5 video specifically relies on the underlying browser (or OS) to provide decoding. Just as you can put whatever kind of image you want in an img tag and rely on the browser to render it (if it can). Most browsers (ie not Firefox) pass on video decoding to the operating system. As most users have OS X or Windows, for which free, licensed h.264 decoders are readily available, or Linux with a GPU that has a hardware (also licensed)
  • I don't care as much about the codecs being open source or closed source - I'm mainly interested in which format offers the higher quality at the same (or lower) bitrate.

    As far as why MPEG LA did this now - probably because right now they've got the upper hand, and they want to be sure not to give their competitors ammunition.

    • by Fumus (1258966)

      You may be only interested in quality, but read the comments above. H.264 is 'free' in that the end user doesn't have to pay. Encoding, decoding, streaming. All you need a licence for. So if you browser or mp3 player wants to support H.264, guess what? They have to pay for licences. Especially freeware like Firefox or Opera would be screwed over by this.

    • Re:I'm pragmatic (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:07AM (#33424232) Homepage Journal

      ``I don't care as much about the codecs being open source or closed source - I'm mainly interested in which format offers the higher quality at the same (or lower) bitrate.''

      I, too, care about which format offers the higher quality at the same (or lower) bitrate. But I'm pragmatic enough to not want to have to jump through hoops if I want to install the software on my computer (on whatever OS I happen to be running), fix any bugs that I encounter while using it, or maybe even audit the software. And I don't want to get in trouble with the law over watching or encoding a video.

      If MPEG-LA or any other organization wants to offer a video format that I cannot legally use, or for which a codec that allows me to do all the things I want cannot legally be implemented and distributed, that's fine with me. However, I then won't be using the format. Getting slightly better video quality isn't worth the hassle, annoyance, and security risks of typical "we care more about our anti-piracy measures than about our customers" software. If anyone else does want to use such software, fine by me.

      The only point where this becomes a problem is when we are talking about standardizing on a format. Standardizing on a format that is not free to implement and use is a very bad idea. Not because it cannot be made to work, but because of pragmatic reasons: there will be barriers, and those barriers will hinder implementation and adoption. All the major players including MPEG-LA recognize this. That's why MPEG-LA is offering this "free for the most common uses" licensing: without that, H.264 would be a huge hassle. Similarly, Flash only became as widespread as it is because the player is freely available for the most popular platforms, TrueType won out over Type1 because of better licensing conditions, and free software is all over the software development world because you can use it without having to jump through hoops.

      Ask yourself this: being pragmatic, how much are you willing to pay and how much work are you prepared to do to get to (legally) use H.265, the new and wonderful (and at this point, hypothetic) video format that is even better than H.264? At what point would you, for pragmatic reasons, decide to go with VP12, the (also hypothetic) video format that is almost as good, and free for all to use for any purpose, with free software codecs that you can install with a single click or command?

      • by dave420 (699308)

        You do realise that you can use h.264 for free for most uses? And if you don't qualify for free, the prices are practically trivial at the scale of business you'd have to be engaged in to require licensing? Apparently not.

        And the difference isn't just "slightly better", but massively better. There is no hardware support for WebM, for example. That's massive. Also, WebM isn't supported in most standalone A/V hardware, as it's a massive outsider of a codec, already technically surpassed.

    • When did the definition of 'pragmatic' change to mean 'only care about short-term consequences'? I'm seeing this usage a lot recently, but I don't know where it comes from.
  • by Per Cederberg (680752) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:39AM (#33423802)
    The natural party to sue would be Mozilla or Opera here, not Google I think. Google already pay the appropriate license fees for YouTube, so there seems to be very little of a legal case there.
    • by feranick (858651) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:15AM (#33423934)
      The lawsuit against Google would concern the alleged violation of MPEG-LA's patents in Google's WebM, not in the unlicensed use of h264...
  • by syousef (465911) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:43AM (#33423806) Journal

    (Patent) war! What is it good for!? Absolutely nothing.
    H.264. What is it good for!? Absolutely nothing.

    Sing it with me everybody!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:46AM (#33423822)
    First, kill all the lawyers. Yeah, sure, we'll have some confusion, initially, but... Come on, really. You know it's definitely, at least, worth a try.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by halfaperson (1885704)
      Let me guess, you've been to that Klingon [slashdot.org] Shakespeare play?
    • by dpilot (134227)

      This is a sad commentary. It has been posted many times, many places, and I once saw a fascinating response by a lawyer.

      Essentially:

      Absent the Law, we are all at the mercy of the powerful. The Law is what gives the little guy some rights, and makes it so he doesn't have to simply and always say "How high?" when someone rich and powerful says, "Jump!" Lawyers are supposed to be the people who give the masses access to those rights under the Law. Sure, there are bad apples among lawyers, but when the mass

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by alexo (9335)

        Absent the Law, we are all at the mercy of the powerful. The Law is what gives the little guy some rights, and makes it so he doesn't have to simply and always say "How high?" when someone rich and powerful says, "Jump!"

        Therefore the law must be formulated in such way that it is understandable by the average person.

        Lawyers are supposed to be the people who give the masses access to those rights under the Law.

        Except that they don't give access, they sell it, resulting in "rights" that, according to your reas

    • Forbid lawyers in the courtroom. The rationale being that if an average Joe is unable to understand the law, it is a problem with the law, not with Joe. Any law Joe can't understand should be immediately repealed. After all, you do want citizens to know if they are criminals or not, don't you?

    • LOL. Shakespeare said that the first step for a tyrant to seize power is to kill all the lawyers to make sure that no one can stand up for the rest of the masses as they got arrested and thrown into the company.

  • by snookums (48954) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:52AM (#33423842)

    Cases like this are ones where the US government (assuming these are US patents) should step up and use their powers of eminent domain to acquire these patents, declare H.264 a government standard (like AES and DES before it) and release the patents (or a perpetual license thereto) into the public domain.

    The developers of H.264 and other codecs have certainly put in a lot of research and hard thinking. I believe their algorithms should be patentable (as opposed to "software" patents that are really on UI patterns and business methods), and I believe the inventors should be justly compensated. However, for maximal furtherance of the creative arts, information interchange formats need to be standardized and unencumbered. The visual entertainment industry contributes far, far more to the US economy than the codec-designing industry, and always will. An indirect subsidy like this would be an excellent stimulus.

    If they had any sense, the MPAA would by lobbying the government to make this happen, rather than trying to shore up their old distribution models with copyright crackdowns. Getting free (gratis), standard, H.264 decoders into the hands of billions of people worldwide would give them a huge boost to their audience. Unfortunately, since they represent motion picture distributors, they're probably in favour of steep licensing fees to keep the barrier to entry high for content producers wishing to distribute independently.

    • by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:11AM (#33423918)

      I believe their algorithms should be patentable

      Algorithms are just mathematics. I for one believe mathematics should not be patentable, even though it's one of the hardest subjects on earth.

      • At what point do you draw the line, as everything can be resolved back to mathematics...
    • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:16AM (#33424096)

      The government can take patents away for more or less any reason it likes, that congress has passed a law allowing it to. Reason is because patents are a power specifically granted to the government. Physical property ownership is considered more of a natural right. The government doesn't grant you ownership because they can't deny it either. Eminent Domain exists because they can take private property for public use, in certain circumstances, however there has to be compensation.

      With patents that's not the case. The government doesn't have to grant patents at all. They have the power to do so, but it isn't required. What that means is the government owns all patents ultimately and can do as they want.

      As such there are some peculiarities with patent law many don't know about. The NSA can fine secret patents. If a civilian files the same patent, the NSA patent is then revealed and granted at the time it is revealed. The government is allowed to make a law like that, since patents are one of their explicit powers.

      Likewise they can take them for various reasons. Congress hasn't granted unlimited power in that regard, but there are a list of reasons for which they can say "That's ours now," and you get nothing. That was actually threatened in the NTP-RIM case and is probably part of the reason NTP took a settlement that didn't include future fees. NTP was requesting an injunction to shut down Blackberry service. The federal government wrote a brief to the court saying they believed that would have an impact on national security (the US government loves them some Blackberries, they are the biggest customer) and they'd prefer the court didn't grant it. They also noted that if it was, they might simply have to void the patent, which can be done on national security grounds. The judge then strongly suggested the two sides work their shit out now.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Hal_Porter (817932)

        Likewise they can take them for various reasons. Congress hasn't granted unlimited power in that regard, but there are a list of reasons for which they can say "That's ours now," and you get nothing. That was actually threatened in the NTP-RIM case and is probably part of the reason NTP took a settlement that didn't include future fees. NTP was requesting an injunction to shut down Blackberry service. The federal government wrote a brief to the court saying they believed that would have an impact on national security (the US government loves them some Blackberries, they are the biggest customer) and they'd prefer the court didn't grant it. They also noted that if it was, they might simply have to void the patent, which can be done on national security grounds. The judge then strongly suggested the two sides work their shit out now.

        This is kind of cool - the Federal Government intervened and saved Blackberry, deus ex machina style. A bit like Eru Iluvatar doing a rm -rf /arda/Numenor/* && umount /arda/maiar/sauron or remount /arda/maiar/gandalf && bleach -white /arda/maiar/gandalf && rmnod /dev/maiar/balrogs/durins_bane

        • by dpilot (134227)

          > A bit like Eru Iluvatar doing a rm -rf /arda/Numenor/* && umount /arda/maiar/sauron or remount /arda/maiar/gandalf &&
          > bleach -white /arda/maiar/gandalf && rmnod /dev/maiar/balrogs/durins_bane

          This deserves some sort of comment or comeback, but I can't for the life of me determine what that should be or what would be appropriate.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        Eminent Domain exists because they can take private property for public use, in certain circumstances, however there has to be compensation.

        The way that usually works is they condemn the property then pay the value of the property after it's been condemned. Meaning pennies on the dollar so that tax payers don't have to cough up for the normal market price of the property. Worse still is that sometimes they'll condemn the only buildable portion of the property and only buy that leaving the developer with no property to develop and no viable way of selling it either. Basically resulting in a complete loss of the property for no gain whatsoever.

    • You could probably do something similar with a standards body without any government involvement. You create a standard, publish the draft, and then solicit patents and money. After a fixed period, you divide the money up among the patent holders. If the amount is considered adequate for a perpetual license for the patents, you release the standard as final. If not, you solicit more money until it is. You make sure that the terms are well known, and then you use the doctrine of latches to prevent any o

    • by bieber (998013)

      Cases like this are ones where the US government (assuming these are US patents) should step up and use their powers of eminent domain to acquire these patents, declare H.264 a government standard (like AES and DES before it) and release the patents (or a perpetual license thereto) into the public domain.

      Or, they could sidestep all that nonsense and just pass some common-sense laws that prevent individuals from obtaining a monopoly on friggin' mathematics. You talk about incentives for industry...what kind of incentive for the software industry do you think it is for the US to be one of the select few nations in the world where you can write some piece of software entirely out of your own effort, only to find that someone else "owns" the techniques that you've implemented and watch them destroy your liveli

  • by tsotha (720379)

    This article unpacks the history of MPEG LA and then suggests the obvious — it's all because of WebM — and the worrying — maybe it's preparing the ground for opening a third front in the patent war against Google."

    Well, I suppose if anyone has the money to fight a three-front patent war it's Google.

    • by Rogerborg (306625)
      Yes, "worrying" is for people who don't have $50 billion in the bank. MPEG LA are more than welcome to start a patent ass kicking contest with that 800lb gorilla. Did I mention that it has sixteen legs and no ass?
  • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:24AM (#33424118)

    Google isn't stupid. They got to investigate the format and patents before they bought On2, and of course after once they owned everything. Also, this is precisely the kind of thing Google would be good at: Looking through large amounts of information and figuring out what is relevant. So My guess is that one of both of the following are true:

    1) VP8 (WebM) does not infringe on any MPEG-LA patents, or at least not any real ones. They probably have some overly broad BS ones, but Google probably has examples of prior art. Google did an extensive review and found that there was no infringement, VP8 had been engineered to avoid MPEG-LA patents so that it could be sold without additional license.

    2) On2, and therefor now Google, holds patents on critical technologies used in H.264. In the event of any infringement suit, they can pull those out and file countersuit. Having WebM stopped would not be a real big deal to Google. They aren't using it for anything important yet. Having H.264 stopped would be devastating for MPEG-LA. Google could thus force them to license all relevant patents, at not charge, in return for the licenses to the Google patents.

    Those are my bets. One or both of those is the case and so Google is confident they can win a game of chicken. This also might explain the move by MPEG-LA to put a permanent licensing moratorium on free H.264 stuff, as well as the fact that there is no suit. They may have looked at things and said "Shit, we can't touch VP8. We could try but we'd almost certainly fail and just wind up with a bunch of legal bills, plug give Google an ironclad thing to point to showing WebM is ok." They may have decided it is better to make H.264 look more attractive and perhaps keep up some nebulous threats to make people think twice about implementing WebM.

    Always remember that patent warfare is a dangerous game. The trolls can play it because they don't own anything or make anything losing patents means nothing. In MPEG-LA's case, there could be a lot to lose if things went wrong.

    • On2, and therefor now Google, holds patents on critical technologies used in H.264. In the event of any infringement suit, they can pull those out and file countersuit

      I would be amazed if this were possible. Any semi-competent lawyer would ensure that the deal that the patent holders signed with the MPEG-LA was irrevocable, or the MPEG-LA patent licenses are worthless. Given the fact that the MPEG-LA is a group of lawyers, it's almost certain that they insisted on something like this. You get the royalties from them, but you have to allow them an irrevocable right to grant licenses to the patents that you put in the pool.

      • I'm sure he meant licenses that are not in the MPEGLA pool, but still cover H.264.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by TheRaven64 (641858)
          I very much doubt that On2 has any of them. When H.264 was being created, they will have gone through their patents to try to find anything that is covered with the standard and added it to the pool. The more patents they have in the pool, the more money they get from H.264 licensees, and that adds up to a lot of money. They'd have no reason to hold on to patents doing nothing with them if they could put them in the pool and make money from them immediately.
          • by boxwood (1742976)

            I don't think On2 was a member of the MPEG-LA.

            The MPEG-LA can't simply add anyone's patents to their pool. They have to have permission of the patent holder. Since On2 wrote their codec specifically to get around the patents in H.264, it wouldn't make any sense for them to allow MPEG-LA to add their patents to their pool.

            • Checking the list, it seems that you're right. That said, the other point still stands. If On2 had any patents that H.264 used, they could have put them in the pool years ago and made a lot of money from them. The fact that they didn't implies that they don't. If they tried now, they'd have problems with latches, because they were clearly aware of the existence of the H.264 standard and chose not to notify anyone of infringement.
              • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

                by smegmatic (1145201)
                It is possible that On2 didn't join MPEG-LA so they could be patent trolls later. If so, it would be ironic that their patents would then be used for good by Google.

                Similarly, it is also possible that On2 didn't join MPEG-LA so that they would be more attractive to being bought be another company who wanted to acquire patents on some part of H.264.

                I have no idea how likely either scenario is, but they don't seem totally implausible.
  • by ciaran_o_riordan (662132) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @06:10AM (#33424564) Homepage

    The main problem caused by MPEG-LA is that people can't distribute video software. GNU/Linux distros have to worry about distributing software that supports H.264, and developers have to worry about adding support to their apps. Documenting this situation is my hobby horse but this "free" licence" is so limited, I can't find much to write about it. It won't make H.264 safe for standards like HTML5 either.

    They promise not to sue non-commercial distributors of video (no ads allowed on the webpage). That means I'm safe to publish videos of me singing karaoke, but no one was going to sue me for that anyway. The only real case I can think of is public service television, which could put their shows online now without worry, but they'd have to be very careful about not having anything that could be called an ad on their webpage. Is that really the extent of this "free" licence that such a fuss is being made about?

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