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Justice Department Examining Web Video War

Efforts by patent holding organization MPEG-LA to challenge Google's VP8 video technology have drawn the interest of antitrust investigators in Washington.

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The U.S. Department of Justice is said to have begun an inquiry into the competitive implications of the video codec standards war, a conflict that pits Google against Apple and Microsoft, among other companies.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, says that the Justice Department is conducting an anti-trust probe into MPEG-LA, an intellectual property licensing group that counts Apple and Microsoft as members.

Asked to confirm the report, a spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment. MPEG-LA did not respond to a request for comment. And Google declined to comment.

Google last year open sourced the VP8 video codec, software used to encode and decode video for distribution and display, to provide a royalty-free option for Web video. The dominant alternative, H.264, is controlled by MPEG-LA and backed by Apple and Microsoft. H.264 is also supported in Adobe's Flash technology. H.264 is royalty-free to end users, but businesses may be subject to fees, depending on how they're using the technology.

The HTML5 video tag does not specify a single standard for video codecs, and Google would like to see VP8 replace H.264 as the dominant video encoding scheme. In January, Google said that it plans to stop supporting H.264 in its Chrome browser. Ogg Theora is another open source option.

Last month, MPEG-LA published a call for patent holders to submit patents that might be infringed by Google's VP8 codec, the purpose being to lay the groundwork for a potential patent infringement lawsuit against Google or other VP8 users.

The Department of Justice is said to be concerned that MPEG-LA and its backers are stifling competition by threatening VP8. California's Attorney General is said to be pursuing a parallel inquiry.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), which last year encouraged Google to release VP8 as open source software, denounced MPEG-LA's solicitation last month. The organization has asked that "everyone who values a Web free of restrictions and threats like [those implied by MPEG-LA's attempt to assemble a patent pool]," boycott the products of companies that participate in the patent pool. A spokesperson for the FSF said that so far almost 600 people have signed the organization's boycott pledge.

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