Video services

New Licensing Fix Could Speed the Road to 4K

After all the fuss around HEVC licensing -- the multiple patent pools and arguments over rate schedules -- one industry player is introducing a new proposal that he hopes will bring everyone back to the negotiating table and lead quickly to widespread adoption of the video compression technology.

HEVC, the High Efficiency Video Coding compression standard also known as H.265, promises twice the bandwidth efficiency of its predecessor AVC, or H.264. Better bandwidth efficiency is good for cutting down on network congestion and for driving development of new applications that take advantage of higher bandwidth ceilings, like 4K Ultra HD video.

Unfortunately, three and a half years after the HEVC standard was ratified, it's still not broadly adopted because of patent licensing disagreements. (See HEVC Advance Could Hurt 4K TV Advancement.)

Tom Vaughan is the vice president and general manager of video for the software encoding business MulticoreWare, and as such he's had many discussions with content studios, chip companies, video streaming providers, and other hardware, software and encoding companies about HEVC licensing. Vaughan says his company doesn't have anything to do with the money that changes hands in patent licensing deals, but as the developer of the industry's most widely used HEVC encoder, known as x.265, MulticoreWare is heavily invested in HEVC adoption. And that's why Vaughan's taken matters into his own hands.

"There's a systemic problem I need to see solved," says Vaughan.

Vaughan's solution, which he details in a blog post today, is a compromise HEVC patent licensing approach.

First and foremost, Vaughan's proposal states that there should be no software licensing fees for the use of HEVC in consumer devices; no fees for decoding and no fees for encoding. This isn't the way licensing is traditionally handled, but Vaughan believes it's critical for HEVC adoption because web browsers and web services simply won't move over to the new codec if there's an added royalty fee, and most application developers won't have the scale to implement the compression technology on an individual basis.

No fees for software, however, doesn't mean no fees for the use of HEVC in hardware, and Vaughan argues that licensing the codec for integration in devices will still be critical in order to optimize the user experience. Hardware integration reduces power consumption which improves battery life and provides more reliable video playback.

To put it plainly, Vaughan believes patent holders should give up on software licensing revenues because they can still bring in money through hardware, and because enabling a royalty-free option for web-based services could make HEVC support available on "more than a billion legacy devices," and rapidly speed up adoption by app developers.

As far as Vaughan is concerned, speed is very, very important. That's because not only are patent holders not making the money they could be today, but also because there's a major effort underway to develop a royalty-free advanced video codec by the recently formed Alliance for Open Media (AOM) . AOM members include Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Mozilla and Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX). Vaughan believes AOM will eventually succeed in its goal, and if HEVC hasn't achieved mass adoption by then, it never will. (See New Alliance Aims at Royalty-Free Video Codec.)

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In addition to removing licensing fees for software, Vaughan's HEVC proposal states that all patent holders should join a patent pool. The existing ones are MPEG LA LLC and HEVC Advance .* The proposal also states that companies should only have to pay one royalty fee per device, that there must be an overall cap on licensing fees for HEVC implementations, and that there should be no royalty fees for content distribution.

On that last point, currently HEVC Advance is advocating a fee for content distributors of 2.5˘** per subscriber. The patent pool originally called for 0.5% of attributable revenues from content owners, but the organization walked its demand back after a major industry backlash. (See HEVC Advance Backpedals on Licensing Fees.)

The new HEVC proposal means very little if it doesn't gain industry support, but Vaughan says he's "optimistic there will be revised licensing terms" as a result of the proposal. While there are a lot of stakeholders to convince, it's also in everyone's best interest to find a workable solution.

Without more HEVC deployments, patent holders will never get a return on their intellectual investment. And without the improved bandwidth efficiency that HEVC can deliver, the industry as a whole will be slower to take the next step toward multiscreen 4K video delivery.

*Note- an earlier version of this story said that Vaughan advocated for a single patent pool, but he has clarified to say that his proposal calls only for all patent holders to join a patent pool, not that existing pools merge.

**The correct fee is 2.5˘, not $0.25 as was previously written.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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