Friday, May 24, 2013

Nokia files third patent infringement complaint targeting Google's VP8 video codec

Google's WebM/VP8 video codec faces three kinds of patent issues that make it unlikely to be adopted as an Internet standard anytime soon:

  1. While Google reached a license agreement with 11 companies that identified to MPEG LA patents they believe read on VP8, an open source community leader believes the license terms for implementers of the standard are irreconcilable with key aspects of software freedom and unworkable for open source. It's a FRAND-zero license: zero license fees, but other terms are imposed, and one needs to sign up in order to benefit from the agreement.

  2. There may still be companies holding patents that read on VP8 but which didn't identify them to MPEG LA or didn't participate in the license deal with Google. VP8 is untested in court.

  3. One company that has stated clearly that it opposes VP8's adoption as an Internet standard and is unwilling to extend a license (not even at a FRAND royalty rate, let alone as a freebie) to implementers of VP8 is Nokia. It's already suing HTC over VP8 patents, and it identified to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) 64 granted patents and 22 then-pending patent applications that it believes read on VP8.

The latest news is that Nokia has now brought its third patent infringement lawsuit over VP8, in the form of a new (second) ITC complaint against Android device maker HTC. Item #3 on my list of patents asserted in that complaint is U.S. Patent No. 6,711,211 on a "method for encoding and decoding video information, a motion compensated video encoder and a corresponding decoder", which is also item #71 on the list of intellectual property rights Nokia identified to the IETF. Nokia's infringement allegations filed with the ITC specifically relate to (not only, but primarily) VP8.

This is the 37-page infringement claim chart that quotes extensively from the VP8 specifications (this post continues below the document):

Nokia VP8 Infringement Claim Chart for '211 Patent

The first Nokia patent assertion against VP8, in a lawsuit against HTC in Mannheim, Germany, went to trial in March (Google participated as an intervenor). The patent at issue in that litigation is EP1206881 on an "apparatus and method for compressing a motion vector field". A ruling had originally been scheduled for last Friday but was postponed to May 31 (next week's Friday).

The next VP8 patent trial (the defendant is HTC, again) will be held by the same court on June 14, 2013. The patent-in-suit in that action is EP1186177 on a "method and associated device for filtering digital video images".

Nokia is asserting 50 different patents against HTC in the U.S., UK and Germany, and three of them allegedly read on VP8 and are on the list of patents identified to the IETF. Nokia isn't just saying that VP8 infringes its patents -- it's actually suing to prove it in court.

In all three HTC VP8 cases, Nokia is pursuing injunctive relief. The German cases would result in sales bans (possibly along with a recall from retail and destruction of infringing goods) in that country; if Nokia prevails on its ITC complaint, there will be U.S. import ban and customs would hold infringing devices upon entry into the U.S.

With so much legal uncertainty, Google may at some point realize that VP8 does not offer a fundamental advantage over H.264 in terms of the licensing situation, but represents a questionable tradeoff: H.264 comes with predictable, limited royalties (even more so after Google's Motorola failed to convince a U.S. court of the merits of its exorbitant royalty claims), while VP8 products may get banned without any licensing obligation on the part of Nokia and possibly other patent holders.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has criticized Google for abandoning open standards in connection with chat services (Google Talk), as I just found out via Techmeme. It appears again and again that Google's commitment to openness is vey selective, and I believe VP8 is ultimately about control and cost reduction, not openness and freedom.

If you'd like to be updated on the smartphone patent disputes and other intellectual property matters I cover, please subscribe to my RSS feed (in the right-hand column) and/or follow me on Twitter @FOSSpatents and Google+.

Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: