Google gets some help from the US Justice Department against the MPEG LA

Antitrust probe kicked off, just in case

GOOGLE’S VP8 VIDEO codec has stirred things up quite a bit already, but it seems like the US Justice Department took a dim view to the MPEG LA snooping around in the VP8 codec to see if it’s breeching any of their patents and have now launched an antitrust probe against the MPEG LA. In as much as we like open standards, we’re also fed up with the multitude of standards you have to deal with as a consumer, but in this case, we’re not taking sides.

The MPEG LA group claim to be sitting on some 1700 patents relating to the H.264 codec, a codec which isn’t royalty free for companies that support it in their devices. The MPEG LA group is trying to find out if Google is violating any of these 1700 patents with its VP8 codec, as it seems like the MPEG LA is feeling threatened by Google’s standard before it has even had a chance to take off.

We can sort of follow the MPEG LA’s train of thought here, as Google is a very successful company and it has managed to win over not only consumers, but also companies to its side, something that’s especially true when it comes to its Android platform. However, considering the widespread adaptation of H.264 in the market, it’s unlikely that VP8 or even its online wrapper WebM is likely to be a serious threat against H.264. On the other hand, with VP8 set to be part of Google’s Android OS as the default codec, maybe there is something to be worried about.

On the other hand, Google is trying to promote what is an open and royalty free standard, something that the device makers like, as it means that they can save money. As far as consumers are concerned, it really doesn’t matter, as we tend to have to live with whatever standard our devices support and make do with that whether we like it or not.

So why is the Justice Department getting involved? Well, they’re afraid that the MPEG LA is trying to cripple a viable alternative to H.264 and stifle the competition, as beyond H.264 (also known as MPEG-4 Part 10) the only other commercially used codecs for HD video are MPEG-4 Part 2 (which is very closely related to H.264) and VC-1 (in a much lesser capacity). There are of course many other video codecs, but most of them are related to H.264 in one way or another, like Apple’s QuickTime format.

This causes some problems, as unless someone writes a new video codec entirely from scratch, which by the way is no small task, there are only so many competing standards. It’s all a bit of a mess, although there are still a handful of other open source codecs such as Theora, but these codecs generally have an even smaller install base and are unlikely to ever end up being popular in the commercial market, despite being popular with the open source community.

As to what the outcome of all this will be, well, we’re just going to have to wait and see. One thing is clear though, software patents as they are today are holding back software development by no small means and some radical changes are needed. In fact, New Zealand got it right by banning software patents by law, something all countries should strive to follow.S|A

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