MPEG LA hit with ATSC suit for flaunting patents power

The ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) digital TV standard has always been about trying to kill off ISDB-T (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting-Terrestrial) in Asia and Latin America to form a global broadcasting technology, but that patent-heavy push, and the subsequent rise in fees, has come back to bite six organizations – following a lawsuit from the US subsidiary of Chinese electronics firm Haier Group, alleging antitrust.

The firms under fire are TV manufacturers Samsung Electronics, Panasonic, LG Electronics and its US arm Zenith Electronics, and Philips, plus the Columbia University Trust Committee and patent pool licensing group MPEG LA, of which the accused companies are all members. Haier America Trading has accused these of monopolization of ATSC patents, conspiracy to force it to pay higher licensing fees, improper royalty stacking, and reducing or eliminating competition.

It isn’t totally surprising to hear that the MPEG LA is being accused of stifling competition given that the group, led by Apple and Samsung, has a reputation for having a stranglehold on the video codec royalties for HEVC due to the uniqueness of each patent pool, but that’s a story for another day.

This week’s patent case is a retaliatory effort against MPEG LA for filing a suit against Haier Group in March this year for allegedly breaching its ATSC licensing agreement. The manufacturer called the $5 per TV set fees “unfair” and threatened to cut off its payments at the end of last year, but did not follow through. The receiver royalty fee is expected to drop to $1 by 2021.

Returning fire, Haier has pointed the finger at MPEG LA by alleging that it “attempted to maintain its excessive royalty rate by adding broadcasting patents” and claims that the ATSC license fee is between 150% and 200% higher than comparable technology licenses in Europe (DVB).

It is unclear why Haier has called out the MPEG LA and five specific member companies when the patent pool has 38 member organizations to choose from, other than the logic that the TV manufacturers it is attempting to sue are its direct competitors. Haier’s suit is likely to trigger a wave of legal battles involving LG, Samsung, Philips and Panasonic – all of which boast a larger share of the global TV market than Haier, which had 3.4% last year.

Another possible reason for the suit is that the Chinese firm and its US subsidiary are concerned about what sort of impact the impending arrival of the third generation standard ATSC 3.0 will have on its market share, particularly as Korean broadcasters are playing a key part in the IP-based technology roll out, which could influence nearby countries.

Although the suit this week does not relate to ATSC 3.0, only the first generation of the technology, it does raise concerns that some of the allegations around monopolizing patent royalties might transfer over to the new technology.

Digging into the filing, Haier has specifically cited non-essential patents as being forced upon licensees, listing 13 of LG’s channel-skipping patents, for identifying the status of a broadcast channel in a digital broadcast receiver – a feature Haier says does not come with its TV sets.

“The anticompetitive conduct has harmed competition since the ATSC patent pool was formed, including reducing the number of companies manufacturing televisions and increasing market share for certain licensors in the ATSC patent pool. MPEG LA along with LG, Samsung, Philips, Panasonic and other licensors have conspired in restraint of trade to affect, raise, fix, maintain, and stabilize prices in the downstream product market by demanding an excessive, non-FRAND (Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory) royalty rate for the ATSC standard,” stated Haier in its filing.

News from the FCC on its progress on studying the impact that ATSC 3.0 will have on the industry and consumers has gone quiet since Chairman Tom Wheeler left, but it’s worth reminding ourselves how important the standard is – including the delivery of a number of technologies that TV stations need to attract today and tomorrow’s viewers, such as mobile TV, 4K, 4K with HDR, and 1080p with HDR.

The standard will play a vital part in IP migration for the US broadcast industry, doing so by essentially incorporating the best parts of DVB-T2, chiefly OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), along with some clever tweaks in areas called capacity, flexibility and extensibility – to address the challenges facing broadcasting as it converges with IP.

LG Electronics showcased the first ATSC 3.0-enabled 4K UHD TV at CES back in January, which was set to roll out in Korea in Spring this year but looks to have been delayed. The LG LED TV with ATSC 3.0 tuner provides broadcast services as well as broadband video, and an EPG delivered by the newly developed ROUTE (real-time object delivery over unidirectional transport) protocol.