Cisco hands license-busting troll-hammer to THOR

Patent lawyers and developers craft royalty-free video codec

A hammer and bent screw

Cisco is sick of the state of patent licensing for video codecs, so has decided to set a royalty-free of its own loose on the world.

The Borg's problem is twofold: on the one hand, the licensing pools for H.264 fail to represent many of the participants in the industry; on the other, the successor, H.265, can be vastly more expensive.

As CTO for the Borg's collaboration business Jonathan Rosenberg blogs: “There is just one license pool for H.264. The total costs to license H.265 from these two pools is up to sixteen times more expensive than H.264, per unit. H.264 had an upper bound on yearly licensing costs, whereas H.265 has no such upper limit.”

For Cisco's own products, that's a pain. While it doesn't mind paying the license fee on enterprise collaboration kit, products like WebEx or Cisco Spark both have free versions.

Its answer is Thor, a project posted on GitHub.

To allay fears that its codec could become abandonware, Rosenberg notes that just to create its own codec, it needed to line up not just devs, but lawyers. Here's his thinking:

“The effort is being staffed by some of the world’s most foremost codec experts, including the legendary Gisle Bjøntegaard and Arild Fuldseth, both of whom have been heavy contributors to prior video codecs. We also hired patent lawyers and consultants familiar with this technology area. We created a new codec development process which would allow us to work through the long list of patents in this space, and continually evolve our codec to work around or avoid those patents.”

Thor has also been contributed to the IETF's Netvc working group (set up in May of this year, here).

To try and give a bit more weight to Thor's hammer, Cisco is hoping others will join the project “to help develop the codec, to participate in the patent analysis, or to contribute their own Intellectual Property Rights on a royalty free basis.”

The Xiph Internet video codec project (a collaboration with Mozilla) has already dropped a contribution into Thor, the entropy coder chunk of its Daala video compression software.

It's not the first time Cisco's found itself frustrated by codec license rules. In 2013, The Borg tried to break the H.264 impasse by open sourcing its own codec and paying the license fees on behalf of users. ®




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