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26 March 2020

AOMedia will relent to “fair” AV1 patent licensing program

Ever since the AV1 codec was conceived around 2015 as a successor to VP9, industry experts have been highly skeptical of the technology’s royalty free assurances. Three years later, the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) launched AV1 onto the video scene in disruptive fashion, but it wasn’t long before patent licensing programs emerged on intellectual property management website Sisvel – and in recent weeks that has evolved into a fully-fledged AV1 patent pool.

Fundamentally, the building blocks for video have remained the same for three decades; the product of extensive cross-industry collaboration and patent sharing. Such codec R&D does not come investment-free and so hounding the idea of a royalty-free codec was always an almost impossible mission for AOMedia – despite being a consortium of some of the world’s most powerful technology firms.

Now, Sisvel has announced nine new members to its Video Coding Licensing Platform for AV1 and VP9, welcoming Dolby, Ericsson, ETRI, GE, SK Telecom, InterDigital, IP Bridge, NTT Docomo, and Xylene. They join original members JVC Kenwood, NTT, Orange, Philips, and Toshiba, which initially approached Sisvel with intellectual property claims.

While most AOMedia member companies have the means to profit from AV1 adoption in other ways, such as through hardware sales or streaming service uptake, smaller vendors with AV1 IP claims do not. Amazon, Apple, ARM, Cisco, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Netflix and Samsung are among the founding members of AOMedia.

So, the 14 challengers are seeking AV1 royalties via the following pricing structure:

  • Consumer display device: Standard Rate = €0.32 ($0.35), Compliant Rate = €0.24 ($0.26)
  • Consumer non-display device: Standard Rate = €0.11 ($0.12), Compliant Rate = €0.08 ($0.09)

According to the guidelines, a consumer display device includes any product capable of enabling visual demonstration or presentation of data and/or images, including smartphones, tablets, notebooks, computers, convertibles, TVs, virtual reality and augmented reality devices, video projectors, and cameras (with displays).

Consumer non-display devices, meanwhile, cover any consumer product that is not capable of enabling visual demonstration or presentation of data and/or images, such as set tops, gaming consoles, dongles, decoders and players, home theaters and streaming media players, cameras (without displays), desktop PCs (without displays) and graphics cards.

Sisvel expects as many as 2,000 patents submitted for license relating to AV1 and a further 1,000 for VP9.

Sisvel CEO Mattia Fogliacco is confident that AOMedia members will relent. “When AOMedia looks at the list of the members we represent, they will realize that the reality is quite a bit different compared to what they imagine it to be. They will realize that the pricing is fair and that we did a thorough job of internal screening with accredited third parties and by our own technical domain experts in establishing a technical foothold for the patents,” he said.

Of all 14 current members, Faultline most recently spoke with InterDigital a few weeks back. We noted how at MWC 2019, InterDigital exuded an aura of being unfazed by uptake of AV1. A year later and with the likes of Netflix adopting AV1, we were unsurprised to hear that InterDigital’s stance has hardly changed. “MPEG is not going anywhere anytime soon,” stressed CTO Henry Tirri.

Meanwhile, when the AV1 patent pool was formed last year, AOMedia criticized it for “endorsing an environment of high patent royalty requirements and licensing uncertainty” that “would limit the potential of free and open online video technology.”

Two weeks into January, Faultline predicted that the codec wars would reignite this year, after patent pool licensor administrator HEVC Advance was awoken from its slumber by the arrival of Huawei as a member company. This was an encouraging sign for HEVC patent holders as AV1 adoption fever has taken hold in recent years, followed several weeks later by Netflix’s AV1 Android adoption.

HEVC patents have fragmented into three pools, with another called Velos Media pitted against HEVC Advance and MPEG LA, presenting a confusing and risky picture for potential users. Fragmentation has in fact given oxygen to the AV1 movement far more than arguable and sometimes spurious claims of performance gains over HEVC.

The entire premise of AV1’s foundation as a fully royalty free video codec has therefore been thrown into doubt – which has surprised almost no one.