updated 03:00 pm EDT, Wed May 19, 2010
Google, Mozilla, Opera may be in trouble with WebM
The new WebM codec shown at the Google I/O day 1 keynote may run afoul of patents, according to an early analysis. Although pitched as a royalty-free HTML5 video standard using a combination of VP8 video and Ogg Vorbis, x264 developer Jason Garrett-Glaser notes that some of the implementations in the now Google-supported format are copied not just from On2's original creation but appear to be directly patterned after H.264, making it entirely possible that WebM violates patents. It resembles an only slightly improved version of the H.264 Baseline Profile and so could invite lawsuits from the MPEG-LA standards group for anyone that uses it.
"Though I am not a lawyer, I simply cannot believe that they will be able to get away with this, especially in today's overly litigious day and age," Garret-Glaser said. "Even VC-1 [used in HD DVD] differed more from H.264 than VP8 does, and even VC-1 didn't manage to escape the clutches of software patents. Until we get some hard evidence that VP8 is safe, I would be extremely cautious. Since Google is not indemnifying users of VP8 from patent lawsuits, this is even more of a potential problem."
The programmer's remarks support statements by Apple CEO Steve Jobs that his company was embracing H.264 over Ogg Theora (which users Ogg Vorbis) because of possible patent issues. Although he publicly supports the concept of open web platforms, Jobs warned that open-sourcing formats didn't guarantee they would be patent-free. H.264 often involves royalties for the companies that implement it but is currently free for users and, as a result, lets Apple and others implement it for HTML5 video knowing neither they nor customers will be sued.
Garrett-Glaser added that the format may be technically inferior to higher-quality versions of H.264. It's technically superior to Ogg Theora and other open-source standards but is slow to encode and lacks many of the compression techniques used to boost quality and efficiency in H.264's Main and High Profiles. The efficiency and image quality are "not even close to competitive" with higher-bitrate H.264, the developer said.
At present, WebM also doesn't have hardware acceleration and could be much less efficient on mobile devices, although Google is talking with companies to get it built-in. Jobs cited the weak state of hardware acceleration as a key reason behind rejecting Flash for the iPhone.
Neither Google nor its WebM partners Mozilla and Opera have commented on the accusations; they may already encounter patent issues as the YouTube HTML5 beta and an Opera beta both implement the codec.