The HTML5 video codec war just exploded! MPEG-LA, who you will remember holds the H.264 patent pool, just invaded Googlonia with a call for patent claims on the VP8 video codec. You will remember that Apple is a member of the H.264 owners, along with Microsoft. You might also recall that there have been some very visible altercations in the war, including Google dropping H.264 from Chrome and Microsoft putting out a plug-in that added it again.
First, I'm going to start with a list of patent holders on the AVC/H.264 codec:
AVC/H.264 Patent Holders
- Apple - 4 patents
- Cisco - 4 patents
- Columbia University Trustees - 9, including 8 international
- Daewoo - 2 Korean patents
- Dolby Labs - 3 US, 8 International
- Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute - 1 US, 3 Intl.
- France Telecom - 1 US, 6 Intl.
- Fraunhofer‐Gesellschaft (Europe's largest application-oriented research organization) - 12 US, SEVENTY-TWO Intl.
- Fujitsu - 4 US, FIFTEEN Intl.
- Hewlett-Packard - One US
- Hitachi - 4 Japanese
- Koninklijke Philips Electronics - TEN US, THIRTY-TWO Intl.
- LG Electronics - SEVENTY US PATENTS, 427 International
- Microsoft - Thirty-Four US, Eighty-six Intl. (openly stated they put in 2x what they get out)
- Mitsubishi - 5 US, twenty-two Intl.
- Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation - 2 Japanese
- NTT DOCOMO, INC - 2 US, 13 Intl
- Panasonic Corporation - Fifty-three US, 554 Intl.
- Polycom Inc - 2 US, 14 Intl.
- Robert Bosch GmbH - 5 Intl.
- Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd - 7 US, fifty-three Intl.
- Sedna Patent Services, LLC - 1 US
- Sharp Corporation - twelve US, seventy-five Intl.
- Siemens AG - 2 US, 3 Intl
- (Christ! Who doesn't have a patent in this thing?)
- Sony - 7 US, twenty-three Intl
- Tandberg Telecom AS - 1 US
- Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson - 1 US, twenty-eight Intl
- Toshiba Corporation - twenty-two US, 319 Intl
- Victor Company of Japan, Limited - 3 US, 2 Japanese
How's that for a bit of investigative journalism? OK, really, it's all in a PDF: AVC Attachment 1. But still, I don't even want to total up how many patents are included in H.264.
Who will make a Patent Claim?
Now here's the kicker, if any of these companies, particularly the more vocal opponents of WebM and VP8 like Apple and Microsoft, make claims, it will just look petty and simply like they're trying to discredit Google's claims of open source on the codec. Won't it? Dirty pool old chaps.
Here's the text of the call for claims.
MPEG LA Offers to Facilitate Development of a Joint License to Provide Coverage Under Essential Patents
MPEG LA, LLC, world leader in alternative one-stop patent licenses, announces a call for patents essential to the VP8 video codec specification used to deliver video images. The VP8 video codec is defined by the WebM Project at http://www.webmproject.org.
In order to participate in the creation of, and determine licensing terms for, a joint VP8 patent license, any party that believes it has patents that are essential to the VP8 video codec specification is invited to submit them for a determination of their essentiality by MPEG LA's patent evaluators. At least one essential patent is necessary to participate in the process, and initial submissions should be made by March 18, 2011. Although only issued patents will be included in the license, in order to participate in the license development process, patent applications with claims that their owners believe are essential to the specification and likely to issue in a patent also may be submitted. Further information, along with terms and procedures governing patent submissions, can be found at http://www.mpegla.com/main/pid/vp8/default.aspx.
The VP8 Specification is described in the following document, including any and all amendments: VP8 Data Format and Decoding Guide, WebM Project, Revised: February 4, 2011 (http://www.webmproject.org/media/pdf/vp8-bitstream.pdf).
My thoughts: All is Fair in Sex and Video Codecs?
Really, the major players have been going after each other in some fairly open ways. Apple, Microsoft and Google have all lobbed thinly veiled shots at each other in one form or another. Now it seems that Apple and (Gulp! End of the world!) Microsoft are teaming up as they're both H.264 members and vying to place it in a favorable position as the HTML5 video codec.
But, with that many patents in it, how could W3C ever decide that it was the right codec? That certainly doesn't look like it's going to create an open environment with a video codec that is unhindered by patent claims, now does it? Simply put, H.264 is up to its eyeballs in patent claims. There are more than 1,700 patent claims on the H.264 codec while at present, there are none on VP8.
However, that could rapidly change. Any of these companies could poke their head in to make sure they get their fair share or what they feel is their fair share. It appears that they are bound and determined to own video streaming on the web it seems. Many of them probably made investments in the patents they hold for video processing, solely to make a killing on them later which is what they appear to be trying to do with this.
I wouldn't think this whole thing was so underhanded, had any other "alternative one-stop patent licenses" group made the call. But the fact that MPEG-LA did, makes it all sordid and seedy. Now the question is, who will dirty themselves by participating whether they have a valid claim or not?
If Google were smart, and I do truly believe they are, they would have purchased as many patents as they could that might have claims on the VP8 codec. They could then simply say "here are all the patents" and then permanently hand over any rights on it all. MPEG-LA and H.264 on the other hand just keep saying "we won't charge royalties for X years..." but that's like saying "I didn't have sex with that woman..." isn't it?
It might be the truth at that moment, but later we find out what the real deal is, and then H.264 is steeped in royalty requirements.
Now I'm not saying the VP8 codec might not contain material that might be, or resemble patented material. But the thing of it is, even if it was independently developed, without knowledge of the software code from an existing patent, a company could claim it theirs and receive a valid claim on the codec. Considering we have a situation where one video codec group is going after another codec group, you can bet your britches that MPEG-LA has someone in the H.264 group that believes they have a claim on VP8, otherwise, why would they do it? Opening this call for claims is simply a formality because I'm sure they already have something in the works. Again, underhanded.
What Make a Software Patent?
Due to the nature of software, where many of us use exactly the same code to achieve the same results, it is difficult to determine what should be patentable.
For example. Say I write some code that says:
10 Print "Hello World" 20 Goto 10
Does that then constitute patentable software? If so, I should patent it and start making claims on every single how-to program book in the world.
The world might not agree. According to Wikipedia (citing Proposed directive on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions)Two particular suggestions for a hurdle that software must pass to be patentable include:
- A computer program that utilises "controllable forces of nature to achieve predictable results".
- A computer program which provides a "technical effect".
Some would argue that patents on software should only be given when something is 'nonobvious.' Again from Wikipedia: This is based on Justice William Rehnquist's ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Diamond v. Diehr that stated that "... insignificant postsolution activity will not transform an unpatentable principle into a patentable process." By this rule, one would consider software loaded onto a stock PC to be an abstract algorithm with obvious postsolution activity, while a new circuit design implementing the logic would likely be a nonobvious physical device. Upholding an "insignificant postsolution activity" rule as per Justice Rehnquist's ruling would also eliminate most business method patents.
Isn't it all (non)Obvious?
So it all comes back to that obvious (many people could simultaneously and independently create the same thing) vs. Nonobvious (no one else would see the same thing and create it). That of course is a rather difficult thing to decide now isn't it? In my Hello World example, it's extremely obvious how to go about that, and we have been doing just that (well not in the same language anymore) for decades. Could a hundred people come up with that same algorithm to print Hello World an infinite number of times?
Could people independently and simultaneously come up with a similar or same algorithm to process video for streaming and display via the web and web browsers.
There in lies the rub... What do you think?