Amazon, Google, Microsoft unite for patent-free Web video


A coalition of major names in tech are attempting to forge video and audio standards unencumbered by patent restrictions

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock – A coalition of A-list tech leaders — Amazon, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Netflix — has assembled an alliance to create next-generation media codecs unencumbered by patents or royalty fees.

The Alliance for Open Media is seeking more than a next-generation audio or video compression technology. The sheer size and breadth of the coalition suggest it’s also looking for a way to perform an end run around the likes of patent-pool bodies like the MPEG-LA. Given the complexity of technology patents, a coalition of this mass and constitution might be one of the few feasible ways to achieve that goal.

The quest for fee-free video

On the face of it, the alliance’s announcement on Tuesday wasn’t so different from the mission statements delivered by previous open-standards organizations. The plan is to deliver two implementations, one standard and one open source, Apache-licensed version, designed for (in the alliance’s words) “both commercial and non-commercial” content.

The creation of the alliance seems to have been spurred most directly by the complicated licensing arrangements behind the H.265 codec. H.265, optimized to deliver better quality with less bandwidth than the H.264 codec (currently in use for HTML5-native video), is mired in a swamp of restrictions imposed by its patent owners. Using H.265 in an open source browser, for instance, is out of the question.

Many members of the alliance have tried to pull together codecs in the past. Cisco has its Thor project; Google had VP8; Mozilla had Daala. But with the difficulty of figuring out whether a newly invented codec falls under an existing patent, as well as the costs of protecting against a potential lawsuit, a coalition of the like-minded may have better luck at realizing this goal than any one of them will on their own.

Under lock and key

Another goal of the group, judging from its announcement (“commercial and non-commercial”), is to devise a standard where content protection is part of the standard from the get-go.

The codecs used by Web browsers to deliver HTML5-based video — mainly the patent-encumbered H.264 — do not have copy protection features built in. Rather, they’re provided by wrapper technologies in HTML5, which originally drew criticism from Mozilla when they were proposed. (Netflix has since put this to use for its Web-based player.)

Mozilla’s announcement did not mention content protection, but its anti-copy-protection stance put it at the risk of being disenfranchised. Mozilla eventually compromised, adding support for HTML5’s Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) and citing user need.

Mozilla may be willing to hold its nose as long as copy protection is not mandatory. If successful, the resulting product’s general lack of restrictions might go a long way toward making up for that hole.

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