Let My Codecs Go: Will Google Free VP8?

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I've written about the growing interest in HTML 5 a couple of times, and there is a parallel discussion around the role, if any, of Flash and its proprietary codecs in an Open Web. And now, hidden away in this dull press release from Google, we have another ingredient added to the bubbling cauldron:

Google Inc. today announced that it has completed its acquisition of On2 Technologies, Inc., valued at approximately $124.6 million, after On2's shareholders voted to approve the transaction.

"We're excited to welcome the On2 team to Google and to continue to enhance the video experience for users on the web," said Sundar Pichai, Vice President of Product Management at Google. "Through rapid innovation in browsers and web standards, the Internet is becoming the leading platform for development. We believe On2's engineering talent and technology will be an incredible asset for us as we work to improve this platform."

What that doesn't mention is the fact that On2 owns a video codec, VP8 – and, even more importantly, all the relevant patents. The Free Software Foundation sees a big opportunity here, as it explains in this rather quaint “Open letter to Google”:

With your purchase of On2, you now own both the world's largest video site (YouTube) and all the patents behind a new high performance video codec -- VP8. Just think what you can achieve by releasing the VP8 codec under an irrevocable royalty-free license and pushing it out to users on YouTube? You can end the web's dependence on patent-encumbered video formats and proprietary software (Flash).

To sit on this technology or merely use it as a bargaining chip would be a disservice to the free world, while bringing at best limited short-term benefits to your company. To free VP8 without recommending it to YouTube users would be a wasted opportunity and damaging to free software browsers like Firefox. We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!

The world would have a new free format unencumbered by software patents. Viewers, video creators, free software developers, hardware makers -- everyone -- would have another way to distribute video without patents, fees, and restrictions. The free video format Ogg Theora was already at least as good for web video (see a comparison) as its nonfree competitor H.264, and we never did agree with your objections to using it. But since you made the decision to purchase VP8, presumably you're confident it can meet even those objections, and using it on YouTube is a no-brainer.

You have the leverage to make such free formats a global standard. YouTube is the world's largest video site, home to nearly every digital video ever made. If YouTube merely offered a free format as an option, that alone would bring support from a slew of device makers and applications.

That's certainly true, but opening up VP8 is not entirely straightforward as Silvia Pfeiffer, an expert on Web video standards points out in an interesting post:

Simply open sourcing it and making it available under a free license doesn’t help. That just provides open source code for a codec where relevant patents are held by a commercial entity and any other entity using it would still need to be afraid of using that technology, even if it’s use is free.

So, Google has to make the patents that relate to VP8 available under an irrevocable, royalty-free license for the VP8 open source base, but also for any independent implementations of VP8. This at least guarantees to any commercial entity that Google will not pursue them over VP8 related patents.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there are no submarine or unknown patents that VP8 infringes on. So, Google needs to also undertake an intensive patent search on VP8 to be able to at least convince themselves that their technology is not infringing on anyone else’s. For others to gain that confidence, Google would then further have to indemnify anyone who is making use of VP8 for any potential patent infringement.

Moreover, she notes that there are technical challenges to be met as well:

Also, let’s not forget that VP8 is just a video codec. A video codec alone does not encode a video. There is a need for an audio codec and a encapsulation format. In the interest of staying all open, Google would need to pick Vorbis as the audio codec to go with VP8. Then there would be the need to put Vorbis and VP8 in a container together – this could be Ogg or MPEG or QuickTime’s MOOV. So, apart from all the legal challenges, there are also technology challenges that need to be mastered.

The whole post is well worth reading, not least because there are some very important points made in the comments by people who know what they are talking about - rather a novelty.

The good news is that if anyone has the resources to sort out the legal and technical problems, Google has. The reason why it might want to go to all that trouble is to free itself from any dependence on the patent-encumbered codecs of others, and to promote a flourishing open video ecosystem, and with it lots of lovely content that it can sell ads against.

In any case, the latest news emphases what an exciting area video codecs have become, and how there is always hope that closed, patented-encumbered technologies can be replaced with completely open ones.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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