DOJ Investigates MPEG LA’s WebM Patent Pool

The Department of Justice is investigating MPEG LA for its proposed VP8 patent pool, according to the Wall Street Journal (s nws). MPEG LA announced its call for patents for the VP8 video codec that’s at the core of Google’s (s GOOG) open-source video format WebM in February, and investigators are now trying to figure out whether this move was meant to stifle competition. The Journal reports that the California State Attorney is also looking into the matter. From the story:

“MPEG LA, which was formed in the late 1990s, manages the licensing of more than 1,700 patents used in a high-definition video encoding standard known as H.264. The Justice Department is concerned the group’s actions may stifle competition to that dominant format, the people familiar with the matter said.”

That sentiment was echoed by Christopher “Monty” Montgomery, the mastermind behind the Ogg Theora open-source video codec, when we talked to him back in February. “MPEG LA is trying to make it illegal to ever compete with them again by sewing an entire industry field up into an impenetrable patent thicket,” he said, adding: “They’re not maneuvering based on concrete claims. They simply want competition to be illegal.”

MPEG LA disputed these claims, with a spokesperson telling us that “the provision of a joint patent license can greatly reduce the potential threat of litigation by clearing away patent thickets when they exist.”

The question is: Do they exist? The Journal quotes MPEG LA CEO Larry Horn calling the idea that WebM is patent-free “nonsense,” and Apple (s AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs went on the record last year saying that “all video codecs are covered by patents.”

Montgomery, on the other hand, believes that any potential claims could easily be resolved by WebM developers. “Maybe something completely unexpected pops up, someone really does have a patent no one saw coming — We sidestep it, work around it, cut it out immediately,” he told me.

The bigger issue at hand is whether MPEG LA and its H.264 licensees, which include Apple, actually want to start such a cat-and-mouse game. The mere threat of a patent pool or possible patent litigation could be enough to keep people from embracing WebM, though MPEG LA denies such claims. We’ll have to wait and see whether the DOJ and other regulators believe the company.

Related content on GigaOm Pro: (subscription required)