MPEG LA ready to escalate codec war against Google, WebM

MPEG LA could be one step closer to forming a patent pool to use against Google’s WebM open-source video format. The H.264 licensing group revealed in an email interview with Streaming Media that it has identified 12 companies with patents that it claims are essential to the WebM standard, which could be used in a legal battle designed to thwart adoption of the competing video format.

WebM is based on the VP8 codec that Google (s GOOG) acquired as part of its purchase of On2 Technologies in early 2010. Google released WebM with a royalty-free, open-source license a few months later, and since then it has been busy building support for the format by layering it into various Google products.

The search giant dropped support for H.264 in the latest version of its Chrome browser, making WebM the only natively supported format for HTML5 video. It has also been busy transcoding YouTube videos to support WebM for HTML5 video playback.

MPEG LA’s plans to establish a patent pool to be used against WebM are nothing new, as the latest statements follow previous threats by the licensing group. (See here and here.) But this is the first time the group has given a hint that it actually has some patent holders on board to back those threats.

As we’ve written before, MPEG LA’s threats come with a few caveats:

First, despite several similar warnings against [Ogg] Theora, MPEG LA has never acted to enforce its patents against that open-source codec. But Theora has been around since 2000, and as such one could argue that as a result, MPEG LA would have a difficult time enforcing the patents that it supposedly infringes on. But VP8 is more or less brand-spanking new, and therefore fair game.

Second, Google has a lot more resources than — the group that controls Theora — does, and won’t be going down without a fight. It spent more than $120 million to purchase On2 and its technology, and wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t committed to making VP8 open source. Not only that, but the search giant said it’s done its due diligence and is confident that VP8 doesn’t infringe on others’ patents.

Google seems to be readying its own defense against MPEG LA’s patent pool, as it has gotten such companies as LG Electronics and Cisco (s CSCO) to provide some backing through the WebM Community Cross-License. At the same time, just the threat of patent litigation against those who choose to adopt the WebM format might be enough to keep some publishers and developers away.

All of that said, all this saber-rattling might not even matter: Despite Google’s best efforts to push adoption for WebM, the format has gotten very little takeup from other publishers or developers. Recent research from MeFeedia found that nearly 70 percent of all videos it indexed were encoded with H.264, compared with just 2 percent of those encoded in WebM.

Photo courtesy of (CC BY 2.0) Flickr user cell105