Google (NSDQ: GOOG) threw down the gauntlet in the web video wars last month when it declared its Chrome browser won’t support H.264, the dominant web video format. Now Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) has shot back, with Dean Hachamovitch, its executive in charge of Internet Explorer, writing a blog post re-affirming Microsoft’s support for H.264. Hachamvoitch also raises questions about whether Google’s preferred WebM video format may have patent or other legal issues that hurt it.
Google’s main beef with H.264 is that it’s patented. While MPEG-LA, the patent licensing organization that collects fees from companies that use H.264, has promised that non-commercial web video that’s free to users won’t have to deal with patent licenses, there’s no guarantee that H.264 video will remain free. It also isn’t crystal clear what kind of companies do need to pay up. MPEG-LA distributes the patent royalties on H.264 video to dozens of companies that have related patents. That list includes Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Microsoft, but not Google.
In today’s post, Hachamovitch makes it clear that Microsoft is sticking with H.264, which he describes as “a high-quality and widely-used video format that serves the Web very well today.” More provocatively, he notes that Microsoft has actually released a plug-in for Chrome to offer the support for H.264 that Google refuses to give.
Next, Hachamovitch suggests that the open-source WebM format could have problems with patent infringement, writing: “Looking at video format support as a vote on who is for or against an open and free Internet is tempting but also naïve… There is absolute certainty that some parties believe they hold valid and unique inventions (patents) and they will assert those rights if they think they are being infringed.”
That’s true, but you could say the same about almost any web-based product these days; as Hachamovitch notes, thousands of web video-related patents have been issued over the years.
He goes on to suggest that Google actually agree to indemnify any companies or individuals that choose to use WebM, meaning that Google should agree to defend against any patent claims that are brought against those parties. “If Google were truly confident that the technology does not infringe and is not encumbered by patents whatsoever, wouldn’t this indemnification be easy?” he asks. Another option, he suggests, would be that Google create a patent pool like MPEG-LA to deal with any patent-holders who come along saying they own intellectual property rights to WebM. As Hachamovitch surely knows, such a scenario would be anathema to Google, which says it’s supporting WebM as part of a push for a patent-free Web.
In the comments, some users complained that the whole episode sounds like an attempt by Microsoft to lock in the world using the patented H.264 format. Microsoft is one of several companies that has patents related to the H.264 format and so it collects licensing royalties. But Hachamovitch, IE’s chief engineer, responded to those criticism by noting that Microsoft pays in to the H.264 patent-licensing pool about twice as much as it receives back.