Google and MPEG LA settle long-running VP8/H.264 patent dispute

In 2011, Google announced its intention to abandon the popular H.264 video standard in favor of its own open-source codec, VP8. That inspired legal threats from H.264 patent holders. Today the two groups announced a settlement.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Sometimes patent wars end, not with a bang but a whimper.

That’s the case with the long-running dispute over Google’s VP8 codec, which was settled today after two years of legal machinations.

Back in 2010 and early 2011, there was a brief flurry of claims and counterclaims by the players in the dispute. In January 2011, Google Product Manager Mike Jazayeri announced that support for the widely used H.264 codec would be dropped from Google Chrome. Instead, the company promoted the open-source VP8 and Theora (VP3) codecs, which it had acquired with the purchase of On2 Technologies in 2010, as an open, patent-free alternative to the widely used AVC/H.264 high-definition video playback standard.

That inspired some not-so-veiled threats from MPEG LA, the group that manages the licensing of H.264-related patents.One month later, MPEG LA announced that it was forming a patent pool and gathering claims from companies that believe they have patents essential to the VP8 codec.

MPEG LA’s position was articulated by its CEO, Larry Horn, who was looking directly at Google when he said:

[N]o one in the market should be under the misimpression that other codecs such as Theora are patent-free. Virtually all codecs are based on patented technology, and many of the essential patents may be the same as those that are essential to AVC/H.264.

Today both parties announced that the dispute has been settled. A press release on MPEG LA’s website has the sketchy details:

Google Inc. and MPEG LA, LLC announced today that they have entered into agreements granting Google a license to techniques that may be essential to VP8 and earlier-generation VPx video compression technologies under patents owned by 11 patent holders. The agreements also grant Google the right to sublicense those techniques to any user of VP8, whether the VP8 implementation is by Google or another entity. It further provides for sublicensing those VP8 techniques in one next-generation VPx video codec. As a result of the agreements, MPEG LA will discontinue its effort to form a VP8 patent pool.

“This is a significant milestone in Google’s efforts to establish VP8 as a widely-deployed web video format,” said Allen Lo, Google’s deputy general counsel for patents. “We appreciate MPEG LA’s cooperation in making this happen.”

“We are pleased for the opportunity to facilitate agreements with Google to make VP8 widely available to users,” said MPEG LA President and CEO Larry Horn.

Although neither party is commenting, it’s logical to assume that Google is making some sort of payment in exchange for the license it’s receiving from the patent holders. When it said no to H.264, Google cited money as a key reason:

Our choice was to make a decision today and invest in open technology to move the platform forward, or to accept the status quo of a fragmented platform where the pace of innovation may be clouded by the interests of those collecting royalties.

The real question now is how Google will make use of VP8, now that the legal cloud has been lifted. A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the company's immediate plans, but independent patent attorney Rob Glidden, who specializes in this technology, notes that Google has proposed VP8 to the IETF as a standard for real-time communication in Web browsers.

In a post to the RTC Web working group, Google's Serge Lachapelle notes that today's agreement is "not an acknowledgment" that VP8 infringes on any of the patents claimed by MPEG LA. Rather, he says, this deal removes the legal cloud that was holding some third parties back: "The purpose of this agreement is meant to provide further and stronger reassurance to implementors of VP8."

Lachapelle notes that Google submitted VP8 for consideration as an MPEG standard in January of this year and has "[i]nvested a significant amount of time and resources into reaching an agreement with the MPEG LA, to provide further reassurances."

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