Yet More Patent Insanity

Evidently the Justice Department is investigating MPEG LA on the grounds that they may be stifling innovation in the area of standards for web video. From today’s Wall St. Journal:

The Justice Department is investigating whether a group representing some top technology firms is unfairly trying to smother a free rival technology for delivering online video that is backed by Google Inc., according to people familiar with the matter….

Antitrust enforcers are investigating whether MPEG LA, or its members, are trying to cripple an alternative format called VP8 that Google released last year — by creating legal uncertainty over whether users might violate patents by employing that technology, these people added.

My first reaction to this is, Duh! Of course, MPEG LA is trying to smother a rival. A patent is a government-sanctioned monopoly; if we don’t want big companies using patents to prevent other companies from innovating, then we might want to look at changing the patent regime.

I’m not a lawyer and I would be not qualified to evaluate the Justice Dept.’s legal theory, even if I knew what it was. But it does seem ironic that one arm of our government is granting monopoly patent rights while another arm is complaining about the same patent holder’s monopolistic behavior.

I’ve written more about VP8 here; I do think it is likely that VP8 infringes patents in the MPEG LA pool for H.264. Also, more about patent liability here.