Over the last three years, Google has been quietly fighting a patent battle for the future of Web video. The battle has pitted Google against the might of the MPEG-LA patent pool, the licensing organisation of the‘H.264/MPEG-4 AC’ (H.264) video codec that encodes most of the world’s High-Def off-line and online video content.
A couple of weeks ago, after more than two years of silence and a threatened US antitrust investigation, that battle came to an end. Below we briefly look at what the battle was about, why it mattered, and the prospects for the future of Web video.
The importance of video codecs
Every time we download or stream video content on the Web, we need to unpack bundles of compressed information. The information is encoded and decoded by compression algorithms called ‘codecs’. Codecs are ‘interoperability standards’ because the compressed information only becomes understandable if the encoder and decoder use the same codec. As with all standards, the utility of a codec increases with the size of the user-base, meaning markets tend to tip towards a single solution.
For Web video, that solution is the H.264 codec, which now dominates the major video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo and the iTunes Store.
Patent issues around codecs
Since video codecs embody cutting-edge technology, they are usually covered by patents. In the case of H.264, the large number of patents and patent holders led to the creation of a ‘patent pool’, where the main patent holders bundled their rights into the single licensing entity, ‘MPEG Licensing Association’ (MPEG-LA). MPEG-LA has been active in enforcing patent rights over the H.264 codec and ensuring a steady stream of royalties to the patent holders.
Enter Google. In 2010, Google acquired On2, a company which developed a rival video codec to H.264 called ‘VP8’. Shortly afterwards, Google announced it would release the codec as an ‘open standard’, to be used without payment of royalties and under an open source license.
HTML 5 and video codecs
With the launch of HTML5 (the latest update to the HTML standard for displaying web content), the battle between the two video codecs heated up.
Unlike previous versions of HTML, HTML 5 mandates that Web browsers incorporate native video support without the use of third party plugins like Flash Video. Under the name of ‘WebM’ (the term used to describe both the VP8 video and the ‘Vorbis’ audio codec working together), Google’s open standard went head-to-head with MPEG-LA’s H.264 codec for inclusion in HTML 5 as the de facto standard.
MPEG-LA responded to the threat of WebM by stating that the so-called ‘open standard’ infringed a number of patents in its pool. Additionally, MPEG-LA launched a call for VP8-essential patents and attempted to form a patent pool around the codec and draw in royalties. As a result, support for Google’s WebM swiftly disintegrated and active supporters (such as Mozilla FireFox) started implementing the H.264 codec into HTML 5.
At this point the antitrust arm of the US Dept of Justice entered the fray and started investigating MPEG-LA for its ‘anticompetitive conduct’.
Out of the blue on 7 March 2013 the announcement was made that Google and MPEG-LA had come to an agreement allowing the royalty-free sub-licensing of WebM.
What does this mean?
While Google got its open video codec, it is difficult to assess at what cost this was achieved. The threatened US antitrust investigation would certainly have put downward pressure on the asking price, but fobbing off patent lawsuits with settlements is never cheap. In addition, Google also had to absorb the cost of its royalty-free licensing strategy.
In any case, an open video codec is a great thing for manufacturers, developers and consumers alike since not having to pay patent royalties lowers costs all round. It also allows implementation by open source-only software vendors, who are often unable to support royalties of any kind.
The key question for Google, is whether the agreement is too late in the day to really have an impact. As already mentioned, standards tend to get entrenched early on given a small head start. With respect to HTML 5, H.264 has certainly had that. But Google is committed to WebM, and is already re-encoding the whole of YouTube into the new codec. With the royalty-free licensing of hardware IP blocks for acceleration also on offer to mobile device makers, Google may get some traction.
In conclusion, we won’t know for sometime whether Google’s open standard, open source, royalty-free Web video ‘revolution’ will take off. But if it does, the revolution will be streamed (not televised), via native HTML 5 video support in your Web browser.