These days, patent lawsuits have become the big guns that tech companies use to battle their competitors. But when it comes to Google's WebM video technology, the company is trying to establish a neutral zone of patent peace.
Today, Google is announcing a program called the WebM Community Cross License initiative designed to dispel patent-related threats looming over freely usable video technology for the Web.
Under the effort, members who join agree to license any WebM-related patents to each other, a move that offers mutual reassurance that the technology is royalty-free in practice as well as in Google's aspiration.
"Each grants to the other members a patent license for any patents that may be essential to WebM," said Mike Jazayeri, Google's director of product management for WebM.
So far Google has signed up 16 other organizations for the effort, some of them obvious allies such as browser makers Mozilla and Opera Software. But other allies, such as Samsung and LG Electronics, have video-related patents one could judge as commercially viable by virtue of their relevance to H.264, WebM's biggest video encoding technology rival.
The effort is an attempt to counter doubts raised about the patent purity of WebM by MPEG LA, which licenses the H.264 patent pool and is investigating the creation of a similar pool for VP8, the video encoding technology that along with the Vorbis audio codec is the core of WebM. MPEG LA has said it believes VP8 violates others patents, though it hasn't revealed any details.
Google hopes the WebM Community Cross License, combined with its own usage of WebM, will allay concerns.
"We felt comfortable in including it in our own products and services," Jazayeri said, mentioning its YouTube video site and Chrome browser. "We're hopeful the CCL will bring clarity and confidence" to those considering using WebM themselves.
If MPEG LA offered a VP8 patent pool, it might be convenient for some companies interested in using VP8 that are worried about potential lawsuits from patent holders. But it also would severely undermine Google's ambition to create a patent-free technology. For example, it would preclude it from inclusion in open-source software such as Mozilla's Firefox and in standards such as HTML5 that seek to sidestep patent encumbrances.
"We genuinely believe the Web is as ubiquitous today as it is because the early founders made the core technologies of the Web open and freely usable," Jazayeri said. "That's critical."
Many important video patent holders such as Microsoft, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Sharp, and Sony aren't on the list, though--at least yet.
"This is just the beginning," Jazayeri said. "We are in active discussions [to] engage those who benefit from the Web ecosystem."
The full list of partners so far is:
HiSilicon Technologies (for itself and on behalf of its parent, Huawei)
STMicroelectronics (for itself and its affiliate, ST-Ericsson)
Google has taken other measures to promote WebM. It's removed H.264 support from Chrome, putting its browser in the Mozilla and Opera camp rather than the Internet Explorer and Safari camp when it comes to HTML5 video built straight into Web pages. It's also begun transcoding all uploaded YouTube videos into WebM--a mammoth task from a computing standpoint--and already has transcoded the most popular videos such that 99 percent of what's seen on YouTube can be seen in WebM.
It remains to be seen how effectively Google can counter MPEG LA. Google is hoping to marshal allies under the banner of an unencumbered Internet.
"I think the comments they've made at this stage aren't helpful to innovation on the Web, and I think others share that concern," Jazayeri said.
To prevail, though, Google and its allies will have to convince others that the commercial value of a livelier Web outweighs the commercial value of any WebM-related patents they have. Today's explosion of patent suits suggests that tech giants with big patent portfolios might not be so eager to lay down their weapons.
Corrected 10:58 a.m. PT to reflect that Google's initiative is about WebM video technology, not its related WebP effort for still images.