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MPEG LA and WebM: Power to the Patent Trolls!--The Producer's View
MPEG LA's call for patents could do serious damage to the WebM format and lead to the industry standardizing on H.264. Let's hope!

Late last week, the Department of Justice began investigating the MPEG Licensing Association (MPEG LA) to learn whether or not the group is unfairly trying to damage Google's competitive prospects with the WebM video format. But maybe MPEG LA would be doing us all a favor by damaging WebM. This commentary by Jan Ozer will appear in the April/May issue of Streaming Media magazine.

In February, MPEG LA issued a call for patents essential to the VP8 video codec. As you recall, VP8 was acquired by Google when it purchased On2. Then, Google open sourced the codec for use in the HTML video tag. Though most of the reaction to MPEG LA's move has been negative ("patent trolls!"), I wish them a hearty good luck.

Why? There are multiple reasons. First, I disagree with the concept that all technologies used on the web should be free. Why? Well, it starts with the fact that I worked for codec vendor Iterated Systems in the early '90s and saw firsthand how costly codec development can be. We had 18 Ph.D. mathematicians on board and consumed more than $300,000 per month in salaries. It's probably a stretch, but I'm guessing we wouldn't have gotten venture funding if we planned to give the product away.

Most "should be free" proponents point to protocols and specifications such as HTML, CSS, and TCP/IP and argue that the web couldn't have grown so explosively if charges applied. Again, I disagree. Before Iterated Systems, I worked at Hayes Microcomputer Products. In the early 1980s, there were multiple modem hardware/software interfaces, making software support a challenge. The market stabilized around the Hayes-compatible standard, and pretty soon, if you wanted to check CompuServe or MCI Mail or remotely log in to your company network, you needed a Hayes-compatible modem. Hayes made a small fortune on licensing fees from vendors selling Hayes-compatible modems, and these fees did nothing to slow the explosive growth of data communications.

Want another example? How about Ethernet, the standard we use for most wired connections and for which many companies are still paying derivative royalties. It hasn't slowed the networking market a bit. How about MPEG-2, which fueled digital broadcasts for many years, including both cable and satellite TV, as well as DVDs. MPEG-2 royalties certainly haven't slowed the growth of any of these markets, and neither did royalties on MP3 audio compression in audio-related markets, much to the great consternation of the music industry.

You can also argue that HTML and CSS aren't really free. Sure, both are open specifications controlled primarily by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and any company can use them. But if you're a for-profit U.S. enterprise that wants to "provide strategic direction to the Consortium" and gain "participation in W3C Working Groups" (, you'll have to spend $68,500 per year in membership fees. If you want to be a playa, you got to be a paya (hey, I'm writing this just a couple of days after the Grammys). Not surprisingly, Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera (and 319 other organizations) are all members. So are HTML and CSS really free?

Finally, WebM isn't really free either, since-assuming the codec gains traction-Google essentially doubles the encoding and storage cost for all streaming producers. Another benefit (har, har) is the confusion in the marketplace à la competing standards such as Blu-ray and HD DVD. Love the HTML video tag or hate it, WebM makes it more complex to implement and vastly more confusing to explain.

If Google wanted to spend $100 million and really benefit the streaming media market, it should have approached MPEG LA for some kind of prepaid royalty buyout offer, as in, "We'll pay you $100 million to make H.264 usage free to all streaming producers in perpetuity." That would have solidified the market around the H.264 standard, cutting producers' costs and simplifying the whole HTML video tag concept.

So good luck MPEG LA. The streaming media marketplace will be more profitable, and will evolve more rapidly, if you can take WebM off the table and help solidify the market around a single codec.

Posted By Tony Hayes on 3/9/2011 6:40:31 PM:

Jan, maybe you can name another technology with no alternative used to build websites that will expose the website owner to the possibility of paying royalties?

The MPEG-LA desperately want a monopoly and have shown they will use any scare tactic to achieve it. Without a royalty free alternative to H.264 video on the web for many businesses will NOT be viable.

Posted By R. Rush on 3/9/2011 6:39:22 PM

Interesting Jan,

I agree with the concept that Google ain't a non-ptofit and that they profit from the giant sucking sound of a vortex that gathers the hindreds of millions of particles that have to pass through its' "Free Web" mantra doors.

Funny how most of the bleeding hearts forget that the almost all of  technology advances were made in this world by the "greed" of inventors to either become rich or to perpetuate/propogate their inventions....

Google feigns "Open Source" and "Royalty Free Web" products and tools and propoganda Gospel, because doing so opens the Floodgates of Lemmings who chant the same Mantra and ultimately make/create BILLIONS of Dollars for Google who has capaitalizes on the publics naitvity and of course the free market capital system that has made Google Rich......commercially  misdirecting the masses to believeing it is everyones right to have it free when they just want to make money off that concept...Phewy, shame on the naysayers of technology protection, licensing and royalties to either pay for it upfront or in arrears as how we pay Google.


Posted By Phil Frisbie on 3/9/2011 4:37:27 PM:

Your example of Hayes-compatible modems is not quite on the mark... The only part of the Hayes command set patented was the one second pause after an escape sequence to put it into command mode. This was trivial for manufacturers to work around if they wanted to (simply reduce it to something less than one second), and with the advent of Windows and installable modem drivers was a perfect work around.

Posted By John R on 3/9/2011 4:23:57 PM

Whatever the means and motives, the internet needs a standard and the move of Google not to support H.264 any longer jeopardizes that standard, so I welcome step to give the power back to h.264

It is a fact that it doubles the cost, makes it difficult for web developers and entrepreneurs.

Doesn't mean I fully agree with this article.  I do find open source very important.

Posted By Mark Hayes on 3/9/2011 4:04:04 PM:


Hi Jan,

You and I have disagreed on this topic before and for me the issue with your arguments is thus—you view the online video space as one big bucket and basically "one size fits all".  In doing so you also make an assumption that WebM adoption will cause a doubling of the space requied for publishers who want to support and cover both codecs.  This might be a valid arguement if one ever thought that WebM had a prayer of penetrating the professional market which consists of major media outlets, networks, film studios, etc.  IMHO, this will never happen.  As you have stated in previous artilces WebM quality is still not on par with H.264 and even if it was, the switching costs would prevent that from happening.  

On the other hand, the WebM approach is perfectly suited to UGC sites, YouTube being one and it is also attractive to HTML developers who like to implement free, open source technology.  Even if you are a media outlet that choses to syndicate to YouTube, you know that Google will glady transcode your H.264 files to WebM, so you don't have to.  So, I do not buy your arguement that WebM will double storage costs.  

My personal feeling is that a private monopoly on any pervasive web technology is not a good thing.  It is good that HTML5 is now challeging Flash and in my opinion a good thing that WebM is an alterntaive to H.264.



Posted By harry pasternak on 3/8/2011 9:45:43 AM


You seem to be leaving out the "free"; as related to "free open source software". The latter is all about the "free"dom to change and make better. Naturally the best example is GNU/Linux. Yes there are people who are in it to make money (directly and indirectly) as well as others who like progressive change—a change that removes the control by a handful of control freaks (let me think of 2 ... Jobs and Gates.)

Posted By George Hamilton on 3/8/2011 6:02:58 AM:

This opinion piece seems to advocate an elimination of competition. I'm not sure the MPEG LA needs friends like these when they're in the midst of an anti-trust investigation.

Posted By George Hugo on 3/7/2011 11:50:51 PM

Tim Berners-Lee, who originally developed the Web, has a perspective both broader and more nuanced than Jan Ozer's:

I think Tim's the guy I'll listen to. Sorry, Jan. You're out, Tim's in.

Posted By Joey Goncalves on 3/7/2011 7:21:37 PM:

"If Google wanted to spend $100 million and really benefit the streaming media market, it should have approached MPEG LA for some kind of prepaid royalty buyout offer, as in, "We'll pay you $100 million to make H.264 usage free to all streaming producers in perpetuity."

I was giving your article credit until I read this paragraph. Is it April fools already?? I really don't think that if MPEG LA had the market cornered they they would perpetuity anything. More like milk everyone for what they could.

This article lost its credibilty with that one,..






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