Video codecs: The ugly business behind pretty pictures

Google's settlement with MPEG-LA is a fresh development in a decades-old story of software patents. Will it finally open video codec technology to open source developers?

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VP8 was On2's ultimate codec technology, offering excellent quality with good compression. Soon after the acquisition, Google released the implementation of VP8 under an open source license, made an irrevocable open covenant around all the patents it embodied, and declared that the new WebM project would offer an entirely open and free format for media.

Naturally, MPEG-LA recognized the threat and quickly decided to reciprocate. It almost immediately announced it was forming a patent pool to sell licenses to patents it was sure WebM and VP8 must infringe upon and invited the usual licensors to tell them all about those patents.

A glimmer of hope

And then ... tumbleweeds. It seems MPEG-LA's saber-rattling was more scabbard-rattling. The agreement Google announced with MPEG-LA was very carefully phrased to protect the dignity of those involved, but seems to indicate MPEG-LA came up empty:

Today, Google Inc. and MPEG LA, LLC have announced that they have entered into an agreement granting Google a license to techniques, if any, that may be essential to VP8. Furthermore, MPEG LA has agreed to discontinue efforts to form a patent pool around VP8.

You can tell there's nothing much of value being "licensed" here, as Google is apparently entitled to the following:

... to sublicense the techniques to any user of VP8, whether the VP8 implementation is by Google or another entity; this means that users can develop independent implementations of VP8 and still enjoy coverage under the sublicenses.

The announcement goes on to make two more important statements. First, Google intends to submit VP8 to MPEG for standardization. This would be a profound change in direction, potentially steering future efforts away from the patent thicket and toward open ground. Second, Google intends to propose V P8 be selected as the "mandatory to implement" codec in the RTCWEB group at IETF that's defining protocols to enable real-time communications in Web browsers: WebRTC.

If all this were to succeed, it would unlock immense opportunity for open source software and the open Web. Freed from constant rent-seeking by patent owners, open source developers would at last be free to innovate on audio and video applications of all kinds without constantly looking over their shoulders or asking permission to innovate.

Naturally, strong, vested interests still want to slow down this revolution or even stop it dead. As soon as Google posted its announcements about VP8, agreement with MPEG-LA, and intent to standardize, two messages were posted on the IETF RTCWEB mailing list. The first, by Microsoft Skype employee Matthew Kaufmann, tried to pour cold water on progress in standardization and invoke process and debate to keep VP8 out of the next standards discussion. The second, by former Nokia patent specialist Stephan Wenger, also invoked process, but more ominously implied MPEG-LA may not be the only game in town. That fear was soon realized by a message from Nokia employee Markus Isomaki stating Nokia -- not a member of MPEG-LA -- intends to assert that VP8 violates one of its patents.

This is the daily story of life in the world of codecs, and it's highly educational about the dangers of software patents. Once accepted and accommodated into normal processes, they become control lines for everything. Despite VP8 being from a different technology heritage, having consciously avoided the patent thicket around earlier MPEG work, and having then been scrupulously opened up by Google (which had to respond to corrections in the process and did so admirably), still the toxic world of software patent control tries to claw it in and force it to submit to the taxation of innovation by the winners of an earlier race.

We can do little more than watch nervously as all the players of the open Web support Google's initiative. In the process, it becomes clearer than ever: The reform of the patent system to address a meshed society of equals is long overdue.

This article, "Video codecs: The ugly business behind pretty pictures," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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