On MPEG-4 patents, Google and VLC

Bored at ActewAGL, I dropped in to slashdot to see that apaprently Google has released a video service and DVD Jon (the DeCSS guy) has cracked the player. Since the player is based on the GPL’d VLC, and is distributed to the browser as an ActiveX control and therefore comes with source, the crack itself is trivial (No offence, Jon. I can’t believe you knocked up a binary patch in .NET!)

But a more interesting discussion about the patent impllications branched off instead.

The idea that using the google version of VLC means you are now licensed to use the MPEG-4 Visual and AVC patent suites depends entirely on the license that google has received from MPEG LA.

MPEG-4 Visual. Looking at: http://www.mpegla.com/m4v/m4vweb.ppt I suspect Google is not considered an encoder/decoder manufacturer but do fall under the category of “Free Internet Broadcast”, which covers the category of making money from the patent by means other than selling the video (eg. advertising). This happily has no patent fees until 2008 and after that will be no greater than “Free Television” which is currently US$2.5k per transmission encoder. (Not server. Encoder. I presume they mean that a machine encoding two channels at once is actually two encoders, although if not, there’s a nice use for a four-way super-machine. One $2.5k payment and you’ve got four channels encoding at a time, while if you buy an off-the-shelf MPEG-4 encoding box you pay $2.5k for the patent license _each_). Upshot: Google pays nothing for this license until 2008..

MPEG-4 AVC. Looking at http://www.mpegla.com/avc/AVC_TermsSummary.pdf the bottom of page 3 and top of page 4 shows that the same rules apply, but the free period is until end of 2010. Again, after that it’s capped at the television rates, which are this time defined per broadcast market (“geographic area within which an End User could use an AVC Decoder to view Free Television AVC Video sent by a single transmitter or transmitters simultaneously with repeaters by a single Legal Entity.”), annually at US$2.5k for 100k to <500k households, US$5k for 500k to <1000k, and US$10k for one million upwards. Easily Google is a single legal entity able to reach anyone over the world-wide web from the one server or set of repeaters, so after 2010 they’re looking at 10k per year for the AVC license. Upshot: Google pays nothing for this license until 2010.

In short, I don’t actually think Google’s _paying_ for anything, If they do have to pretend to be a manufacturer, then they’re paying less than US$0.50 per unit for both patents, but I doubt they are doing that. No company would willingly put a up a link that costs them US$0.50 per hit. If they could, the Internet Ad Banner bubble wouldn’t have burst. ^_^

Edit: Yes, I’m an idiot. I forgot to address the original point of the linked blog post. Anyway, the licenses I think Google are signed up to only affect Google’s ability to stream out the video, and turn out to be completely distinct from the player used to stream it. I didn’t see anything in the MPEG LA pages about free software encoders/decoders, since they all seem to talk about ‘sale’ and ‘manufacture’, neither of which is actually done for a software encoder/decoder. Mind you, I didn’t actually read the license text itself, since you have to ask for it. And this article about Nero Digital implies that there’s no fee for the codec itself now, but there might be soon. At which point, assuming Google pays the codec fee, then a google-branded player will come with a license for use which you wouldn’t get directly from VLC. And things get sticky.

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3 thoughts on “On MPEG-4 patents, Google and VLC

  1. Clare-Bear says:

    Hey Paul, Ez Fez Prothero let me in on the blog thing, good to be able to see what you’re really up to.. more juice please, promise I won’t tell Mum!

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