One of the major announcements Google made at this year’s Google I/O conference had been WebM, a new project to create an open source, royalty-free, high-quality video format that would be freely available for anyone to use for playback and encoding, without the burden of paying royalties to patent holders (or Google, for that matter). That would give WebM a significant advantage over proprietary technologies liie H.264 video, which developers have to pay royalties to support. However, at the heart of WebM is Google’s VP8 video codec, and according to All Things Digital MPEG LA—the licensing consortium in charge of the AVC/H.264 video stadard—is apparently working to put together a license package for VP8. That means Vp8—and WebM—may not be royalty-free after all.
While many in the industry have called for a good-quality royalty-free video codec to enable the widespread adoption of Internet video, several have noted that VP8 may not be free of patent encumbrances, despite Google’s initial claims. And, indeed, if VP8 is found to be covered by existing video patents it wouldn’t be the first time a major company has touted a royalty-free video format only to have it shot down later by applicable patents. A few years ago Microsoft was broadly touting its VP-1 video codec as a royalty-free solution to online video, but within months a number of companies had asserted it infringed on their patents and a licensing package had to be put together.
Google itself claims to have performed due diligence on the VP8 codec on technology from On2 (which Google acquired earlier this year for about $125 million). Although the specification is still in very rough and incomplete form, Google obviously feels confident enough in the technology to offer it as open sources. However, just the shadow of patent encumbrance may be enough to hinder adoption of WebM and VP8—and both Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft Corp. have already expressed skepticism the technology will survive patent challenges.