WebM Community Cross-License Initiative Launches

Google has announced the WebM Community Cross-License Initiative, a consortium of companies that agree to share any patents that those companies may hold that are relevant to the WebM video format, and in particular the VP8 video compression algorithm. Desktop media players like Winamp are beginning to embrace WebM. And, perhaps most crucially, chip makers like Intel are working to add WebM support at the hardware level.

One of the biggest challenges for WebM is the intellectual properties issue. It’s no secret that the patent system is seriously messed up. Some of the patents granted to the members of MPEG LA, the consortium that owns the patent pool for H.264, are so broad and ambiguous that it’s almost impossible to develop a media codec without violating them. Nevertheless, Google has maintained that WebM doesn’t infringe any existing patents, and is a clean and reliable royalty free alternative to H.264. A couple of months back, MPEG LA, the entity that stands to loose the most from the success of WebM, called upon its members to submit patents essential to the VP8 video codec specification, presumably in preparation of a patent infringement lawsuit..

The major difference between the two is that MPEG-LA charges for use of its patent pools in many, but not every, scenario, whereas the WebM Community Cross-License Initiative will not charge in any way, ever.

The move will serve to better assure would-be implementors of WebM technology that it will not open them up to legal liability. Lawsuit-magnet Microsoft, in particular, has raised a number of questions about the patent risk surrounding WebM, and is unlikely to integrate support for the standard until the concerns are resolved to its satisfaction (though it’s happy for Google to take the risk). Creating a consortium of companies bound by a promise to offer any relevant patents they may own on a royalty-free basis, even without identifying what those patents may be, is a positive step by Google to diminish that risk.

The exact terms of the cross-license agreement have not been decided. The intent is to create an agreement that essentially extends Google’s existing VP8 patent grants to all the community members: they will each offer a royalty-free license to use their patents, subject to the condition that community members not sue each other. If any community member sues any other for any patent related to WebM then the suing community member wil lose its rights to use any of the other WebM Patents.

Including Google itself, there are currently 17 companies in the WebM Community, representing a range of interests. Browser developers Opera and Mozilla are both members, as is consumer electronics giant LG Electronics, along with semiconductor supremos Samsung and Texas Instruments. Notable absences from the community include Microsoft and Apple.

Indeed, compared to the list of companies with patents in the H.264 patent pool—the companies perhaps most likely to have patents covering WebM—and the lack of overlap is significant. Cisco, LG, and Samsung are members of both groups, but there are 26 other companies in the H.264 patent pool that have not yet joined the WebM initiative. These companies all have a vested interest in defending H.264’s royalty payments, and their absence will leave some doubts over the significance of the consortium.

MPEG-LA is not standing still either. In February, the company announced a call for the submission of WebM patents, with a view to forming a patent pool of its own. That initial call ended last month, and though the group has been quiet since that announcement, a statement given to The H said that patents had been submitted for inclusion in the pool, and that the pool-creation process was continuing. The next step for MPEG-LA will be to assess the submitted patents to determine if they are essential to VP8; if they are, a pool will be formed.

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