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How MPEG LA tamed a giant - and will again

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'Maybe I delude myself... but I don’t think we are under anybody’s influence'

“We put out a call for patents [on VP8],” said MPEG LA's Horn. "That initiated a discussion with Google about delivering licences to them."

The exec refused to discuss what formal talks took place with Google. Yet Horn concedes the threat did bring Google to the table. We also asked Google for its side but the company declined to comment.

Google had tried to sidestep the matter by parking its codec under a BSD licence. It was a unilateral decision, and one that clearly failed to satisfy MPEG LA.

According to Horn, it is MPEG LA - rather than individual patent holders like Apple or Microsoft - that takes the lead in forming patent pools. So it would have been MPEG LA that acted in this case against Google, without prompting. “We don’t discuss [pending action] with owners. When we form a pool, MPEG LA takes a decision based on feedback from the market,” Horn says.

Underlining the point: Steve Jobs in 2010 said a patent pool was going after Theora, the free lossy video compression format. “All video codecs are covered by patents. A patent pool is being assembled to go after Theora and other 'open source' codecs now,” Jobs wrote. No MPEG LA patent pool was formed.

“Maybe I delude myself,” Horn continues. “But I don’t think we are under anybody’s influence around here - whether it’s our owners or patents-holders… We believe you have to be principled in the administration of these programs.

"Just because you are a patent-holder here doesn’t mean you get a free pass over here because you don’t take a licence. I define neutrality as having our own self-interest. Obviously, we are a business and we like to make a profit. The way we like to do that is providing a service to the market that people are willing to pay for.”

MPEG LA is owned by 10 companies including Cisco, Sony, General Electric and Google, thanks to its purchase of the phone business owned by Motorola. These owners are not necessarily patent-holders in MPEG LA’s pools and MPEG LA is not a standards body, so it does not create specifications.

The group was formed in 1997 by eight companies that wanted to turn the then-new MPEG 2 standard into a viable business by charging others to use it. The original line-up included Fujitsu, Panasonic, Sony and Philips.

MPEG LA doesn't create technology standards like MPEG 2 or H.264, but it does charge for them. MPEG 2 was the work of the ISO/IEC Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) and H.264 came from the ITU's Video Coding Experts Group and MPEG. The difference is the “LA” part - standing for Licensing Authority.

Now the ITU and MPEG group that built H.264, the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding, is cooking up H.265 - or High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). This idea is H.265 will improve video picture quality without demanding fatter bitrates from the devices' networks. This should make it better suited for use on tiny-footprint devices like smartphones, and tablets.

H.265 will improve coding efficiency to reduce the bitrate requirement – the goal is for a 50 per cent compression gain over H.264.

Like H.264, it’ll be MPEG LA that's the money-making end of the business for the tech companies whose patents get baked into H.265. “We are facilitating a pool for H.265,” according to Horn, who said the plan was for meetings in April and May with a licence to be issued this year.

If history is a guide, H.265 should be propelled to a rapid takeover. H.264's ascendancy was assisted by the fact that Apple and Microsoft, two of the most influential companies in business and consumer tech, were involved.

Apple and Microsoft not only helped build H.264, they made it ubiquitous through their browsers, servers, operating systems, tablets and phones. MPEG LA enforced the hegemony through patent licensing, seeing off potential rivals like VP8 from Google.

Horn won’t be drawn on why H.264 has taken over or MPEG LA's role: “These are decisions made by the marketplace based on numerous factors important to individual users/adopters,” he says. “We are agnostic on those choices.”

But with the muscle of MPEG LA in its corner, H.265 is likely to keep its rivals - tech giants or no - in line. ®

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