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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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  • 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.

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

    by SuperKendall (25149) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:47AM (#33423824)

    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 (1) no-one will take on the legal risk of using your standard, and (2) that you will be hit by patent trolls or even just random holders.

    Frankly, I of the opinion that standards groups SHOULD be able to hold a patent hammer over implementations of said standard outside the group, because a standard means nothing without enforcement as Microsoft has taught us all too well. I want standards to be adhered to, not fragmented - and many standards bodies provide free licensing for open source implementations so it's not like it's really blocking that much work.

  • 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 amolapacificapaloma (1000830) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:53AM (#33423848) Homepage

    When he says "free", he means "free of patents threats". Of course you can do it "for free", but they will eventually come after you.

    Ah, and when you "pass it to the OS", you need to have paid for and OS from a vendor that has paid the licensing...

  • Re:Yeah... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by beelsebob (529313) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:17AM (#33423940)

    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.

  • 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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:16AM (#33424266)

    1) because there's no reason to limit it.

    2) because mathematicians are discovering facts that are already there, not inventing new stuff.
            It's like you go to the ocean and watch and see a new fish and say "I invented that fish". That's mad.

    >But how is it helpful to society for, say, the Green-Tao Theorem [] to be unpatentable?

    Are you arguing for facts about prime numbers, that is, the basis of all symbolic computation, to be patentable? If it were, we couldn't do anything anymore - who knows which programs inadvertently contain such an arithmetic progression of "prime numbers" (i.e. symbols).

    >But I don't see why Terrence Tao and Ben Green shouldn't be allowed to patent their idea if they found a real-world use for it and were so inclined.

    They can try to patent that real-world use if it is an invention that is not obvious to someone skilled in the field and has not been done before and is technical in nature.
    Patent a law of nature, no.

    >that most mathematicians simply don't care much about money or royalties or what have you--that's really behind the idea that math *shouldn't* be patentable?

    No, it's that it's unethical to say you own "your creation" when in fact you just discovered what is already there.

    >I'd guess our idealism would vanish in the face of real humans really wanting money for their work.


    The patent system, unjust as it is, at least had a little bit of justification in the beginning: a contract between society and an inventor: The inventor gets to profit from his invention as the only party for a few years (which means society coerces its other members not to), but for that, society gets the _detailed_ description how to build his invention.

    Before that, it was argued that people would just keep the "secret sauce" to themselves and profit of it until they die and then nobody knows how to do it anymore.

    If there was any secret sauce of mathematics that I couldn't use, that would devalue the entire field for me. I'd be ashamed for us as a species.

    And note that the "money" argument is not what patents are really about (well, in the end, almost everything is about money, but I mean directly). I wish people would see that.
    It's power. Power over everyone. Power not to let you do something, _no matter how much you would be willing to pay_. Just being able to say "no" and being backed by an entire country.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @05:42AM (#33424398)

    Why then do MPEGLA not indemnify? Because there is NO WAY your license agreement with them can stop someone else with a patent being infringed from suing for use of their patent in H.264.

    And so your "the ONLY kinds of standards" schtick goes "poof!".

  • by node 3 (115640) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @06:37AM (#33424714)

    Why can FF not offer H.264 video?

    They can. It's only their philosophy that prevents them from doing so. Neither the MPEG-LA, nor their own license, prevents them from supporting H.264. They could even distribute an H.264 plugin for Firefox on all supported platforms completely legally.

  • by smegmatic (1145201) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:43AM (#33425930) Homepage
    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.
  • Re:Yeah... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dave420 (699308) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:58AM (#33426132)
    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) h.264 decoder, most users don't have to worry about all this licensing malarkey. I'd root for Google's standard if it didn't suck balls so much and have practically no hardware support.

Luck, that's when preparation and opportunity meet. -- P.E. Trudeau