Jon Simpson

Jobs: Theora patent issues ahead?

4 May 2010

A FSF staffer sent a mail to Steve Jobs querying the allusion to H264 as an open standard and received quite an interesting bit of information in reply (as well as the obvious clarification that ‘open’ doesn’t imply anything about the patent status of codecs) :

All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other “open source” codecs now.

Further to my earlier comments on Google’s upcoming release of VP8 (an advancement from the Theora family of codecs) as open source and free to the community, I think there’s likely to be a flurry of patent-related activity once one of these codecs has a significant target behind it. It’s not clear whether VP8 is going to suffer the same fate, I’d certainly expect Google to clarify their position and set expectations appropriately for the patent ecosystem surrounding it at their release - possibly at Google IO later this month.

It’s worth noting that Apple and Microsoft have both avoided Theora and stuck to H264 - both are members of the MPEG-LA patent pool for H264/AVC, it would seem likely that both are liable to be privy to these threats behind closed doors, along with high value targets for any potential suit.

Many seem to be interpreting this as Apple or Microsoft being the aggressors - I can’t see them being the parties to bring this suit. In fact, one of Microsoft’s browser developers has since clarified that they actually pay more to MPEG-LA to licence capabilities for Windows than they make from licence fees in the patent pool.

It’s all pointing to the HTML5 <video> tag and browser codec support lining up to have its very own Unisys/GIF shakeout period, barring Google clearing the way.