Nokia battles Google to kill open video

Nokia has made explicit its antipathy toward Google's open video format VP8, but the community can outflank Nokia's patent maneuvers

Last month, I wrote about the battle between open source video tools and the entrenched industry around video. Google announced it had reached an accommodation with MPEG-LA to no longer imply that VP8 was threatened by MPEG-LA patents and it hoped to have VP8 standardized by MPEG.

At the IETF meeting where Google's staff explained the proposal, it was clear that the standards arbiters working for the companies with deep investments in MPEG H.264 were not going to make life easy. In contrast with the treatment received by other speakers, the Google speakers were constantly challenged by meeting attendees associated with H.264 -- almost to the point of harassment. It also became apparent that Nokia -- a company that, prior to its change of direction to become part of Microsoft's hegemony, had supported open source approaches -- was poised to mount a challenge to VP8.

[ Simon Phipps tells it like it is: Why software patents are evil. | Video codecs: The ugly business behind pretty pictures | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

Since then, the challenge from Nokia has gained prominence. In an official filing responding to VP8's request for comments, Nokia has asserted it owns a large portfolio of software patents that it believes would need licensing to implement VP8 in certain contexts. More important, Nokia has stated it is not willing to license its patents. Since Nokia is not a member of MPEG-LA, licenses to its patents are not made available under the agreement with Google.

Does this mean a dead halt for VP8 and, by implication, for the exciting WebRTC proposal for Web browsers to have standard and open audio/video real-time capabilities? Not necessarily. The immediate response to this news from the open source community was to look for ways to render Nokia's patents invalid. As Groklaw points out, that may not be as hard as it seems. First, the reportedly enormous list of patents in Nokia's declaration seems to involve a great deal of duplication, with the same patents filed in multiple jurisdictions. Finding strong reasons for a patent being considered invalid in one may help prove it's invalid in the rest.

Second, the patents include a number of "continuations" -- requests by Nokia for second chances to prove some aspect of the patent that was found questionable really is OK. Mark Webbink points out:

The USPTO has been in no hurry to process these reconsideration requests. As a general rule, if the prosecution of the patent has taken this long (9 years) then it is fair to venture that there are some significant issues with the subject matter claimed.

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