On Friday I said that the VP8 video codec (part of the WebM project) still isn't off the hook with respect to patent infringement issues despite Google's recent license agreement with MPEG LA. 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. Simply put, the backers of VP8 are largely the losers of the patent game, while companies with strong patent positions prefer H.264.
A first Nokia v. HTC WebM/VP8 patent infringement trial was held in Mannheim, Germany on Friday (March 8, 2013). And that is only the beginning.
I have meanwhile found out that Nokia, which is known to have a strong position in video technologies and not a contributor to the MPEG LA AVC/H.264 pool (though it owns 36 patent families declared essential to that standard), is suing HTC over at least one other video codec patent allegedly infringed by Google's VP8.
The other litigation I found out about is scheduled to go to trial on June 14, 2013. The patent-in-suit in that action is EP1186177 on a "method and associated device for filtering digital video images". This is its claim 1:
"A method for reducing visual artefacts in a frame of a digital video signal, which is coded by blocks and then decoded, a block type being defined according to the prediction encoding method for a block selected from a predetermined set of coding types, the method comprising performing an adaptive blockboundary filtering operation on a block boundary formed between a first decoded image block on a first side of the block boundary and a second decoded image block on a second side of the block boundary, characterized in that the first decoded image block [has] been encoded using a first type of prediction encoding method and the second decoded image block [has] been encoded using a second type of prediction encoding method, wherein at least one parameter of the filteirng operation is determined based on the types of the first and second prediction encoding methods, and the first and second type of prediction encoding methods are selected from a group of prediction encoding methods comprising at least: intra coding, copy coding, motion-compensated prediction code, and not-coded coding."
I plan to attend the trial and will then report on how the panel of judges over which Judge Andreas Voss ("Voß" in German) presides views Nokia's infringement allegations, and how how HTC and Google try to defend themselves.
Nokia does not have any FRAND licensing obligation with respect to VP8 (only with respect to AVC/H.264). Theoretically it could refuse to license patents that read on VP8 and seek sales and import bans against infringing products, while I'm not aware of any major patent holder who holds IP that reads on H.264 but didn't make a FRAND commitment. There is one such patent holder that made a FRAND commitment and doesn't really honor it (Google/Motorola), but defendants in H.264 patent infringement cases can at least demand a license on FRAND terms, while no implementer of WebM/VP8 can hold Nokia to a related FRAND pledge (because such a pledge doesn't exist). While it's less likely that Nokia would actually shut down implementations of VP8 if one of its patent families turns out to be essential to VP8, the fact that there's no FRAND commitment in place means that there's virtually no limit for how high a royalty Nokia could demand.
The Android ecosystem is taking Nokia's patent infringement claims quite seriously. One Android device maker sued by Nokia, ViewSonic, is already close to a settlement under which it will pay royalties (a fact that was confirmed in open court on Friday).
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