The ATSC3 and HEVC Patent Pools Solution

The phrase “Lights, camera, action!” reminds most people of show business and the glamor in front of the cameras. In fact, the real action doesn’t occur on sets. Everyone who touches TV content or delivery wants a piece of the “action.” That action is royalties, and its the best action in show business.

HDTV and UHD are rightfully land-grabs, yet neither came from a big private or public engineering laboratory. They are technology mosaics of hundreds of vertical inventions and technologies with hundreds of individual patents that became a part of a group effort. The patent search is still on for ATSC 3.0 and HEVC, but there could be more than a thousand patents built into the formats. Many patents might seem to play minor role, but the scale of universal consumer television integration brings lots of money to a relatively small table. 

Both TV formats are supported by unique patented compression schemes and underlying code. H.264, otherwise known as MPEG-4 and AVC, is used in ATSC 1.0. H.265, otherwise known as HEVC, is used in ATSC 3.0. They are fully incompatible. On the other hand, H.265 requires about half the bandwidth, making it practical for more content and/or UHD transmission via RF or IP. It seems like a great idea. What’s holding it back?

One of the few things H.264, H.265, ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 have in common is that none were invented by a single individual or company. In the early TV days before video exploded and the NAB Show settled in Las Vegas, a handful of hardware innovators created and sold nearly all the gear TV stations required, from mics and cameras to transmitters. Equipment in the largest NAB show exhibits was painted either Ampex Gray or RCA Brown, later RCA Blue. There were some other exhibitors, but most of the critical patents for nearly all early television broadcast video electronics were clearly controlled by RCA or Ampex. Patent ownership was never an issue.

Image CED.

Image CED.

Fast forward to 2018. Memories of Ampex Gray and RCA Blue are blowing in the wind like old broadcast signals. There are many more television research scientists experiencing more "Eureka!" moments than ever, and they're spread all around the world. About a thousand NAB Show exhibitors do their own private R&D. Many of those same exhibitors and their engineers also hold thousands of patents. Broadcast patent-holders usually like to cooperate, as do industry organizations such as ATSC, SMPTE and IEEE. Together they have become a launching pad for the rapid deployment of advanced television technology, instead of the government.

Government Resolution

The NTSC standard was developed by the FCC to resolve conflicts between companies during the introduction of a national TV system. The FCC later reconvened the Committee and adopted the NTSC color standard in 1953. Those hundreds of NAB exhibitors and others involved in developing ATSC 1.0, ATSC 3.0, H.264, H.265 technology and standards are cooperating to share technology developed by myriad of companies, some large, and many others relatively obscure. They all want and deserve a piece of the action. To reach that objective in a way that makes financial sense, a couple of organizations have formed “patent pools.” Patent pools protect patent-holders whose inventions are used in any of the digital TV formats and they collect and distribute royalties.

There are more users and money at the decoding end than the transmission encoding end. Thus, the focus of patent pool revenue is primarily on the one-time licensing of decoders. However, rumors of “HEVC licensing issues” have been heard around previous NAB conventions including this year's show. Not everyone seems to know that H.265 and HEVC refer to the same thing.

In the 1990s, MPEG LA was established to manage the ATSC Patent Portfolio License, granting rights protected by patents that are essential to the ATSC 1.0 standard. MPEG LA, which happens to be based in Denver, has created multiple media and licensing programs for Enhanced Voice Services (EVS), HEVC, DASH, Display Port, ATSC, AVC/H.264, MVC, MPEG-4 Visual, Increscent Tx, MPEG-2, MPEG-2 Systems, 1394 FireWire, VC-1 (SMPTE 421M), and MPEG-4 Systems. MPEG LA has operated its licensing programs for technologies consisting of more than 14,000 patents in 84 countries with some 230 patent holders and more than 6,000 licensees.

MPEG LA launched its HEVC Patent Portfolio License in 2013. That pool has since gained approximately 208 licensees and affiliates. A separate HEVC patent-pool group independent of MPEG LA, known as HEVC Advance was launched in 2015.

Last summer, MPEG LA announced a “call for patents” essential to ATSC 3.0, which is how previous MPEG LA Patent Portfolio Licenses started. It is the first step toward creating a one-stop ATSC 3.0 license, and it appears to be the fairest way to acknowledge and reward the many engineers who invented small parts of it.

Too Many Cooks?

Some 2018 NAB Show exhibitors and visitors expressed their concerns about two separate entities handling HEVC patent pools. Two pools were confusing, and rumors of HEVC licensing issues continued to quietly echo through the exhibit halls.

In fact, a March 2018 HEVC Advance press release announced that it had eliminated “subscription” and “title-by-title” content distribution from the HEVC Advance Patent License. “HEVC Advance will no longer license nor seek royalty fees for non-physical HEVC content distribution including Internet streaming, cable, over-the-air broadcast, and satellite,” it said.

In late 2016, HEVC Advance announced it “would not seek a license or royalties on HEVC functionality implemented in application layer software downloaded to mobile devices or personal computers after the initial sale of the device, where the HEVC encoding or decoding is fully executed in software on a general purpose CPU. Examples of the types of software within the policy include browsers, media players and various software applications.”

“HEVC Advance has worked hard since its inception to facilitate HEVC adoption and enable consumers to enjoy the best video experience. By eliminating non-physical HEVC content distribution from our license, we are transforming to meet the needs of distributors looking to adopt HEVC and bring the incredible bandwidth savings and clarity of 4K UHD to consumers,” stated HEVC Advance CEO Pete Moller. As of 24 April 2018, HEVC Advance has 17 Licensors.

The HEVC Advance announcements should put several rumors to rest, and help HEVC and ATSC 3.0 move forward.

Real Benefits

Pools assure that all patent-holders large and small, get their fair share of royalty action. Television stations and other equipment buyers benefit from the knowledge that they are free and clear to integrate the rapidly growing and changing technology into their systems. It’s the kind of insurance pioneers need, particularly in today’s litigious environment, and it helps fund for future TV R&D.

Broadcast engineers benefit because regardless of who gets what share of the royalties action, we can install, use and manage the latest technology that is the 21st Century culmination of world-wide collaboration and competition. Broadcast engineers like working together. We do our best to avoid risks involving patent infringement, and everything else in our control that could become problematic.

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