Licensing Group Prepares Patent Attack On Google’s Video Format

Will the future of web video be free or come with a patent-licensing bill? The question has no clear answer at this point– which is why a format war over web video continues to brew. Now MPEG-LA, the patent-licensing organization that collects patent royalties from users of the most popular video formats, has issued an official call for patents that cover V8, the video codec technology that Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is making part of its WebM project to promote patent-free multimedia online.

Google has open-sourced the V8 format after it bought it last year, and any person or company can use V8 for free. By suggesting that patents are out there that actually cover V8-and saying it’s looking to gather up such patents and demand licensing fees-MPEG-LA has practically declared web-video war on Google. Google has said it will defend its project and build a coalition to support “free and open development” on the web.

One big question has to be whether tech corporations, and particularly Google rivals like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) or Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), will answer this patent “call to arms.” Both Apple and Microsoft get money from MPEG-LA because they own patents on the popular H.264 video format-a format that Google kicked out of its own browser last month.

MPEG-LA is the licensing organization for several different video formats, including the video formats used in popular devices like DVD players. It works like this: each patent pool has a list of licensor companies, which can number in the dozens or in the hundreds. When companies make something like a DVD player or a computer that can read DVD’s, they have to make royalty payments to MPEG-LA, which then divides it up among the list of licensor companies.

One of the patent pools already administered by MPEG-LA is for H.264 video, which is the most popular codec for reading and encoding web video online. Google sparked off conflict over web video when it announced last month that it wouldn’t support H.264, because it’s patented. Instead, Google is promoting its WebM project, which promotes patent-free, open formats including V8 (video) and Vorbis (audio).

A Google spokesperson said via email that the talk about a VP8 patent pool is nothing new: “MPEG LA has alluded to a VP8 pool since WebM launched… The web succeeds with open, community-developed innovation, and the WebM Project brings the same principles to web video. The vast majority of the industry supports free and open development, and we’re in the process of forming a broad coalition of hardware and software companies who commit to not assert any IP claims against WebM. We are firmly committed to the project and establishing an open codec for HTML5 video.”

Holders of “essential patents” for the V8 patent pool have until March 18 to submit them for consideration to MPEG-LA. If a patent pool gets formed, the threat of litigation is sure to follow. MPEG-LA and any licensor companies are surely aware that Google won’t hesitate to defend its formats from patents. But if MPEG-LA can make the ultimate future of WebM appear to be in doubt, it could cause video companies faced with urgent decisions about what formats to support to veer away from WebM.