Twelve organizations have concluded that Google's VP8 video encoding technology violates their patents, according to a group called MPEG LA that's considering offering a license to those patents.
"Patents owned by 12 different patent holders have already been found to be essential to VP8," MPEG LA said in a statement to CNET yesterday.
This is a concrete data point in a debate that's lasted more than a year so far about how safe Google's technology is to use without fear of infringement litigation. Previously, MPEG LA had only offered the more limited statement that it believed VP8 violated others' video patents. MPEG LA declined to name the companies or patents involved.
VP8 is a codec--technology used to encode and decode streams of data such as video and audio--that Google released in 2010 as an open-source, royalty-free product that could be built into software such as Web browsers and hardware such as mobile phone processors. Google obtained VP8 through its $123 million acquisition of On2 Technologies in 2010; when paired with the Vorbis audio codec it forms the WebM video technology with which Google hopes to liberate Web video from the patent-encumbered incumbent called H.264 or AVC.
In particular, Google wants to find a royalty-free codec that can be used in conjunction with the HTML5 video technology, a move that could help advance Web video to make it as straightforward to use on a Web site as a JPEG graphic is today.
MPEG LA is in the business of licensing collections of patents relating to H.264 and to several earlier video codecs. These patent pools are actually owned by numerous companies, universities, and research institutes that set MPEG LA's licensing terms, collect some of the revenues, and choose to sue parties believed to infringe the patents. MPEG LA argues that it merely provides a one-stop mechanism to license intellectual property that's much more convenient than licensing patents from a multitude of individual organizations, but Google wants VP8 to steer clear of patent licensing restrictions altogether.
Earlier this year, MPEG LA issued a formal call for organizations to come forward if they believed VP8 violated their patents. Twelve now have done so, but it's not yet clear whether MPEG LA will offer a VP8 patent pool license or how the licensing costs might compare with those for H.264.
"A principal consideration for essential patent holders in determining whether to form a patent pool is whether offering a pool license alternative--a license to essential patent rights owned by multiple patent holders under a single license as an alternative to negotiating separate licenses with each--would be of benefit and convenience to the market," MPEG LA said. "MPEG LA is currently facilitating that discussion among them."
The Streaming Media blog reported the emergence of the 12 patent holders earlier this week.
Google is working to form a program called the Community Cross-License to allay fears of VP8 patent infringement suits. Through it, each member of the group "grants to the other members a patent license for any patents that may be essential to WebM," Mike Jazayeri, Google's director of product management for WebM, said in an earlier interview.
In a statement today, Google reiterated its hope to create a royalty-free Web video technology:
MPEG LA has alluded to a VP8 pool since WebM launched--this is nothing new. The Web succeeds with open, community-developed innovation, and the WebM Project brings the same principles to web video. The vast majority of the industry supports free and open development, which is why we formed the WebM CCL enabling member organizations to license patents they may have that are essential to WebM technologies to other members of the CCL. We are firmly committed to the project and establishing an open codec for HTML5 video.
Google has felt confident enough in the intellectual property purity of VP8 to ship it in its Chrome browser and offer it as an option on YouTube. It has attracted a number of allies, too: Mozilla includes WebM support in the Firefox browser, and Nvidia's Tegra 2 mobile processor has hardware support for VP8 encoding and decoding.
Patent lawsuits are generally expensive, protracted ordeals uncommon in the technology industry, but many parties, including Google, have been swept up in a spate of such lawsuits involving the hotly competitive mobile phone market. It's not just competitors suing one other: so-called non-practicing entities whose sole business is licensing patents have been suing as well. Because such entities don't make or sell tech products of their own, they can't be countersued for infringement when they file suit.
Just having a patent isn't enough to win a lawsuit, though. Defendants often challenge a patent's validity, sometimes successfully, and companies often argue their own products don't infringe in the first place.
Updated 3:17 p.m. PT with comment from Google.