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H.264 Patent Group Under Possible Antitrust Scrutiny

Competition surrounding video codec technologies is getting a second look by the U.S. Department of Justice and the California State Attorney General's office, according to a story published last week by The Wall Street Journal.

Citing unnamed sources, the story said that that the investigations have centered on whether or not members of MPEG LA are acting to thwart competition, specifically from the open source VP8 video codec fostered by Google. Last month, MPEG LA, an umbrella group of patent holders associated with H.264 video codec, asked for parties to provide comments on patented technologies used by VP8.

"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," MPEG LA stated in a Feb. 10 news release (PDF).

Google developed VP8 after acquiring intellectual property from On2 Technologies for about $125 million. In May, Google made VP8 available as royalty-free open source code as part of a WebM project. WebM was embraced by the Free Software Foundation, which publicly appealed to companies late last month to boycott MPEG LA's patent pool.

The H.264 video codec licensed under MPEG LA is widely used and consists of technologies claimed by companies such as Apple, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Microsoft, among others. Video codecs are used in browsers, software media players and disk-reading devices.

The renewed skirmish over video codec patents appears to be correlated with the impending rise of HTML 5, which will enable browsers to run video natively in a browser, without plug-ins. Video feeds using HTML 5 will still rely on video codecs, however, and that's precisely where discussions at the Worldwide Web Consortium deadlocked. No agreement could be reached among the members of the W3C's Working Group about which video codec would be the standard for the Web.

Browser makers have since split on which video codecs they will support (see Table). Microsoft backs H.264 and has claimed that its patent-licensing revenue interests aren't the reason for that support. It also announced that it will support VP8 in Internet Explorer via a download for Windows. Moreover, it has developed plug-ins for Firefox and Google Chrome that will enable playback using H.264.

Browser Support for Video Codecs With HTML 5
H.264 Ogg Theora VP8
Apple Safari - -
- Google Chrome Google Chrome
Microsoft IE 9 - Microsoft IE 9
- Mozilla Firefox Mozilla Firefox
- Opera Opera

Google stated in January that it will no longer support H.264 in its Chrome browser. The company explained that it wanted to foster support for open video codec technologies, such as WebM and Ogg Theora.

An April 30 e-mail attributed to Apple's CEO Steve Jobs is being cited as an early warning that open source video codecs would be under fire.

"All video codecs are covered by patents," Jobs purportedly wrote in an e-mail to Hugo Roy of the Free Software Foundation Europe. "A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other 'open source' codecs now."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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