Next-gen high-res video faces new fees and uncertainty

So-called 4K video could arrive later and cost more because of a surprise royalty demand for a certain video compression technology.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Myoungsup Han, head of Samsung Electronics' imaging team, unveils the NX1 camera in 2014. The camera can shoot 4K video compressed with the HEVC/H.265 technology.
Myoungsup Han, head of Samsung Electronics' imaging team, unveils the NX1 camera in 2014. The camera can shoot 4K video compressed with the HEVC/H.265 technology. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Maybe you won't be watching that 4K streaming movie, shooting that 4K video or buying that 4K TV as soon as you thought or at the price you expected.

That's because of a setback that struck the transition to high-resolution 4K video Thursday when a new patent-licensing group called HEVC Advance revealed surprise plans to license patents for video compression technology.

"I don't see how it can't raise the price," said Jan Ozer, a video technology author and consultant at Streaming Learning Center. And the absence of licensing terms from the new group for a few months likely will delay the industry's adoption plans, he added.

TV makers and video-streaming services are trying to get consumers excited about 4K video, also known as Ultra HD. It promises a sharper picture by using at least four times the pixels as mainstream HD video at a resolution of 1920x1080.

But to handle all the extra data, 4K video needs more powerful compression technology. To that end, dozens of industry players created a new compression standard called the High Efficiency Video Coding, aka HEVC or H.265. A well established group called MPEG LA announced in 2014 a mechanism to license a pool of HEVC patents for use in products like Blu-ray players, video editing software and smartphones.

Then HEVC Advance arrived Thursday with a second patent pool. That raises the prospect of new payments or patent-infringement legal risks, and that's a potential problem for 4K enthusiasts. For example, MPEG LA eliminated streaming video license fees it charged with HEVC's predecessor, H.264/AVC, but HEVC Advance may demand those fees.

Market confusion

"It creates confusion in the market," especially given MPEG LA's pool of patents from 27 different patent holders, said Frost & Sullivan analyst Dan Rayburn. "They put out a press release that scares a lot of content owners, and then won't give any details...I've got content owners saying this is bad for my business."

The news, which arrived just before the video industry descends upon Las Vegas for the annual National Association of Broadcasters conference, illustrates the difficulties of today's patent system. Patent holders want to be paid for their innovation, but patent worries can make product development a matter for lawyers, not just engineers. And patent lawsuits are very expensive to fight.

For its part, though, HEVC Advance argues that it's speeding things up. Some major patent holders weren't involved with MPEG LA's patent pool, and its license will simplify licensing. "It is clear that the marketplace is demanding an additional licensing option for HEVC essential patent owners, and HEVC Advance is meeting that need," the group said in a statement.

Transparent licensing

HEVC Advance promises a "transparent" licensing process, but so far it isn't sharing details except to say it's got 500 patents it describes as essential for using HEVC, that it plans to unveil its license in the third quarter, and that expected licensors include General Electric, Technicolor, Dolby, Philips and Mitsubishi Electric.

The group's statement suggested that some patent holders weren't satisfied with the money they'd make through MPEG LA's license. One of HEVC Advance's goals is "delivering a balanced business model that supports HEVC commercialization."

One potential winner is Google, whose VP9 video compression technology is available with no royalty payments, Ozer added. Google is pushing its VPx technology family to try to liberate online video from just the sort of patent troubles that have now cropped up around HEVC. Google uses VP9 as one option for its YouTube site.

HEVC Advance and MPEG LA aren't detailing what led to two patent pools, an outcome that undermines MPEG LA's attempt to offer a convenient "one-stop shop" for companies needing a license.

"To the extent other patents may be necessary or useful, parties are free to evaluate for themselves their need for a license," MPEG LA said in a statement. It didn't comment on why HEVC Advance's licensors aren't included in its patent pool.

HEVC Advance has the exact same sales pitch as MPEG LA: licensing from us is easier than hammering out licenses with several individual companies.