[I have updated the post below, with some considerations from the past similar initiative by Sun (now Oracle) of the Open Media Commons, that designed a codec based on enhancement of H261+]
There is a substantial interest on the recently released WebM codec and specification from Google, the result of open sourcing the VP8 SDK from the recently acquired company On2. It clearly sparked the interest of many the idea of having a reasonably good, open and freely redistributable codec for which the patents are freely licensed in a way that is compatible with open source and free software licensing; at the same time, the results of initial analysis by Dark Shikari (real name Jason Garrett-Glaser, the author of the extraordinary x264 encoder) and others seem to indicate that the patent problem is actually not solved at all.
I believe that some of the comments (especially in Dark Shikari’s post) are a little bit off mark, and should be taken in the correct context; for this reason, I will first of all provide a little background.
What is WebM? WebM is the result of the open sourcing of the VP8 encoding system, previously owned by On2 technologies. It is composed of three parts: the bitstream specification, the reference encoder (that takes an uncompressed video sequence and creates a compressed bitstream) and the reference decoder (that takes the compressed bitstream and generates a decoded video stream). I stress the word “reference” because this is only one of the possible implementations; exactly like the H264 standard, there are many encoders and decoders, optimized for different things (or of different quality). An example of a “perfect” encoder may be a program that generates all possible bit sequences, decodes them (discarding the non-conforming ones), compares with the uncompressed original video and retains the one with the highest quality (measured using PSNR or some other metric). It would make for a very slow encoder, but would find the perfect sequence; that is, the smallest one that has the highest PSNR; on the other hand, decoders differ in precision, speed and memory consumption, making it difficult to decide which is the “best”.
Before delving into the specific of the post, let’s mention two other little things: to the contrary of what is widely reported, Microsoft VC1 never was “patent free”. It was free for use with Windows, because Microsoft was assumed to have all the patents necessary for its implementation; but as VC1 was basically an MPEG4 derivative, most of the patents there applies to VC1 as well, plus some other that were found later for the enhanced filtering that is part of the specification (and that were also part of the MPEG4 Advanced profile and H264). It was never “patent free”, it was licensed without a fee. (that is a substantially different thing – and one of the reasons for its disappearance. MS pays the MPEG-LA for every use of it, and receives nothing back, making it a money-loss proposition…)
Another important aspect is the prior patent search: it is clear (and will be evident a few lines down) that On2 made a patent search to avoid specific implementation details; the point is that noone will be able to see this pre-screening,to avoid additional damages. In fact, one of the most brain damaged things of the current software patent situation is the fact that if a company performs a patent search and finds a potential infringing patent it may incur in additional damages for willful infringement (called “treble damages”). So, the actual approach is to perform the same analysis, try to work around any potential infringing patent, and for those “close enough” cases that cannot be avoided try to steer away as much as possible. So, calling Google out for releasing the study on possible patent infringement is something that has no sense at all: they will never release it to the public.
So, go on with the analysis.
Dark Shikari makes several considerations, some related to the implementation itself, and many related to its “patent status”. For example: “VP8’s intra prediction is basically ripped off wholesale from H.264″, without mentioning that the intra prediction mode is actually pre-dating H264; actually, it was part of Nokia MVC proposal and H263++ extensions published in 2000, and the specific WebM implementation is different from the one mentioned in the “essential patents” of H264 as specified by the MPEG-LA.
If you go through the post, you will find lots of curious mentions of “sub-optimal” choices:
- “i8×8, from H.264 High Profile, is not present”
- “planar prediction mode has been replaced with TM_PRED”
- “VP8 supports a total of 3 reference frames: the previous frame, the “alt ref” frame, and the golden frame”
- “VP8 reference frames: up to 3; H.264 reference frames: up to 16″
- “VP8 partition types: 16×16, 16×8, 8×16, 8×8, 4×4; H.264 partition types: 16×16, 16×8, 8×16, flexible subpartitions (each 8×8 can be 8×8, 8×4, 4×8, or 4×4)”
- “VP8 chroma MV derivation: each 4×4 chroma block uses the average of colocated luma MVs; H.264 chroma MV derivation: chroma uses luma MVs directly”
- “VP8 interpolation filter: qpel, 6-tap luma, mixed 4/6-tap chroma; H.264 interpolation filter: qpel, 6-tap luma (staged filter), bilinear chroma”
- “H.264 has but VP8 doesn’t: B-frames, weighted prediction”
- “H.264 has a significantly better and more flexible referencing structure”
- “having as high as 6 taps on chroma [for VP8] is, IMO, completely unnecessary and wasteful [personal note: because smaller taps are all patented ]“
- “the 8×8 transform is omitted entirely”
- “H.264 uses an extremely simplified “DCT” which is so un-DCT-like that it often referred to as the HCT (H.264 Cosine Transform) instead. This simplified transform results in roughly 1% worse compression, but greatly simplifies the transform itself, which can be implemented entirely with adds, subtracts, and right shifts by 1. VC-1 uses a more accurate version that relies on a few small multiplies (numbers like 17, 22, 10, etc). VP8 uses an extremely, needlessly accurate version that uses very large multiplies (20091 and 35468)”
- “The third difference is that the Hadamard hierarchical transform is applied for some inter blocks, not merely i16×16″
- “unlike H.264, the hierarchical transform is luma-only and not applied to chroma “
- “For quantization, the core process is basically the same among all MPEG-like video formats, and VP8 is no exception (personal note: quantization methods are mostrly from MPEG1&2, where most patents are already expired – see the list of expired ones in MPEG-LA list)”
- “[VP8 uses] … a scheme much less flexible than H.264’s custom quantization matrices, it allows for adjusting the quantizer of luma DC, luma AC, chroma DC, and so forth, separately”
- “The killer mistake that VP8 has made here is not making macroblock-level quantization a core feature of VP8. Algorithms that take advantage of macroblock-level quantization are known as “adaptive quantization” and are absolutely critical to competitive visual quality” (personal note: it is basically impossible to implement adaptive quantization without infringing, especially for patents issued after 2000)
- “even the relatively suboptimal MPEG-style delta quantizer system would be a better option. Furthermore, only 4 segment maps are allowed, for a maximum of 4 quantizers per frame (both are patented: delta quantization is part of MPEG4, and unlimited segment maps are covered)”
- “VP8 uses an arithmetic coder somewhat similar to H.264’s, but with a few critical differences. First, it omits the range/probability table in favor of a multiplication. Second, it is entirely non-adaptive: unlike H.264’s, which adapts after every bit decoded, probability values are constant over the course of the frame” (probability tables are patented in all video coding implementations, not only MPEG-specific ones, as adapting probability tables)
- “VP8 is a bit odd… it chooses an arithmetic coding context based on the neighboring MVs, then decides which of the predicted motion vectors to use, or whether to code a delta instead” (because straight delta coding is part of MPEG4)
- “The compression of the resulting delta is similar to H.264, except for the coding of very large deltas, which is slightly better (similar to FFV1’s Golomb-like arithmetic codes”
- “Intra prediction mode coding is done using arithmetic coding contexts based on the modes of the neighboring blocks. This is probably a good bit better than the hackneyed method that H.264 uses, which always struck me as being poorly designed”
- residual coding is different from both CABAC and CAVLC
- “VP8’s loop filter is vaguely similar to H.264’s, but with a few differences. First, it has two modes (which can be chosen by the encoder): a fast mode and a normal mode. The fast mode is somewhat simpler than H.264’s, while the normal mode is somewhat more complex. Secondly, when filtering between macroblocks, VP8’s filter has wider range than the in-macroblock filter — H.264 did this, but only for intra edges”
- “VP8’s filter omits most of the adaptive strength mechanics inherent in H.264’s filter. Its only adaptation is that it skips filtering on p16×16 blocks with no coefficients”
What we can obtain from this (very thorough – thanks, Jason!) analysis is the fact that from my point of view it is clear that On2 was actually aware of patents, and tried very hard to avoid them. It is also clear that this is in no way an assurance that there are no situation of patent infringements, only that it seems that due diligence was performed. Also, WebM is not comparable to H264 in terms of technical sophistication (it is more in line with MPEG4/VC1) but this is clearly done to avoid recent patents; some of the patents on older specification are already expired (for example, all France Telecom patents on H264 are expired), and in this sense Dark Shiraki claims that the specification is not as good as H264 is perfectly correct. It is also true that x264 beats the hell on current VP8 encoders (and basically every other encoder in the market); despite this, in a previous assessment Dark Shiraki performed a comparison of anime (cartoon) encoding and found that VP7 was better than Apple’s own H264 encode – not really that bad.
The point is that reference encoders are designed to be a building block, and improvement (in respect of possible patents in the area) are certainly possible; maybe not reaching the level of x264 top quality (I suspect the psychovisual adaptive schema that allowed such a big gain in x264 are patented and non-reproducible) but it should be a worthy competitor. All in all, I suspect that MPEGLA rattling will remain only noise for a long, long time.
Update: many people mentioned in blog posts and comments that Sun Microsystem (now Oracle) in the past tried a very similar effort, namely to re-start development of a video codec based on past and expired patents, and start from there avoiding active patents to improve its competitiveness. They used the Open Media Commons IPR methodology to avoid patents and to assess patent troubles, and in particular they developed an handy chart that provides a timeline of patents and their actual status (image based on original chart obtained here):
As it can be observed, most of the techniques encountered in the OMV analysis are still valid for VP8 (the advanced deblocking filter of course is present in VP8, but with a different implementation). It also provides additional support to the idea that On2 developers were aware of patents in the area, and came out with novel ideas to work around existing patents, much like Sun with its OMV initiative. In the same post, the OMV block structure graph includes several “Sun IPR” parts, that are included in the OMV specification (the latest version available here (pdf) – the site is not updated anymore) and that maybe may be re-used, with Oracle explicit permission, in WebM. And to answer people asking for “indemnification” from Google, I would like to point my readers to a presentation of OMV and in particular to slide 10: “While we are encouraged by our findings so far, the investigation continues and Sun and OMC cannot make any representations regarding encumbrances or the validity or invalidity of any patent claims or other intellectual property rights claims a third party may assert in connection with any OMC project or work product.” This should put to rest the idea that Sun was indemnifying people using OMV, exactly like I am not expecting such indemnification from Google (or any other industry player, by the way).