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VP9 Is Almost Here, But a Nokia Patent Fight Might Have it DOA
Google plans to release the VP9 codec in less than a month. While it sounds promising, deep-pocketed companies will want to hold off on adoption.
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In a series of blog posts last week, Google detailed the final release schedule for VP9 and a few other implementation details. These posts also indicated that YouTube plans to start using VP9 once it’s available in Chrome. Unfortunately for Google, recent patent infringement claims from Nokia seriously muddy the waters regarding whether or not VP8 and VP9 will ultimately be royalty free.

Let’s start with the hard facts. According this post by Paul Wilkins, a Google codec engineer, VP9 should be released on June 17. According to Lou Quillio, webmaster for WebMProject.org, there won’t be a new WebM container format; instead, the existing container will be extended to allow for VP9 video and Opus audio streams. There was no update on how VP9 compares to HEVC in terms of quality; the last word on that came in November, 2012, when Google reported that VP9 was about seven percent behind H.265 in terms of quality.

Regarding YouTube, in this blog post, Matt Frost, senior business product manager for the WebM Project, stated “Last week, we hosted over 100 guests at a summit meeting for VP9, the WebM Project’s next-generation open video codec. We were particularly happy to welcome our friends from YouTube, who spoke about their plans to support VP9 once support lands in Chrome.”

While skeptics might (correctly) point out that YouTube adopting WebM did little to advance VP8, certainly the availability of a royalty-free codec that’s only seven percent less efficient than HEVC would be alluring to multiple parties, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding HEVC’s royalty picture. Looking back, the most beneficial aspect of Google’s open-sourcing VP8 was that it likely contributed to MPEG LA’s decision to make H.264 royalty free in perpetuity for free internet distribution, and it would be lovely if VP9 had a similar impact. However, Google is currently embroiled in its own VP8-related patent issues that make it far from clear whether or not VP8 or VP9 is or will be royalty free.

I hear you thinking, “Didn’t I read in Streaming Media Magazine that MPEG LA had issued Google a license on patents that may be essential to VP8?" Yes, you did, on March 7, the two parties signed such an agreement. However, the article also states, “While this is probably meaningless, it’s interesting that though 12 parties stepped forward in MPEG LA’s call for patents, only 11 patent holders were party to the agreement.”

Actually, it wasn’t meaningless; on the day after the Google/MPEG LA agreement, the 12th party, Nokia, in a suit against HTC, claimed in a German court that VP8, as used in the Android operating system, infringes on one or more of its video compression-related patents. Nokia followed that up with an intellectual property rights (IPR) disclosure to the Internet Engineering Task Force) that claims that the VP8 Data Format and Decoding Guide infringes upon one or more of its patents, and that it was unwilling to commit to any licensing terms.

According to Florian Mueller, owner of the authoritative Foss Patents blog, the royalty picture for VP8 is far from clear. After the Google/MPEG LA agreement, Mueller wrote, “Claims that VP8 is now free from per-unit or per-implementer license fees are grossly exaggerated. There are simply too many video technology patents out there, and the backers of WebM/VP8 are primarily companies whose own patent portfolios are too weak to resolve patent infringement issues through royalty-free cross-licensing.”

At this point, any potential user of VP9 (or VP8 for that matter) would have factor the potential costs of a lawsuit with Nokia into their decision-making process, and you’d expect that the deeper the pockets, the more likely the lawsuit. Seen in this light, Microsoft’s and Apple’s decision to not incorporate WebM into their respective browsers seems a whole lot more reasonable. 

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As anticipated, Google open sourced VP8 today, in a new container format called WebM
VP8 is now free, but if the quality is substandard, who cares? Well, it turns out that the quality isn't substandard, so that's not an issue, but neither is it twice the quality of H.264 at half the bandwidth. See for yourself.