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With HEVC Royalty Payments Getting Steep, it's Thor to the Rescue

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With two HEVC patent pools now in the market and a third one being formed, the adoption of HEVC as the successor to H.264 is going to start getting very expensive. The total cost to license H.265 from the two current pools in the market today (MPEG LA and HEVC Advance) is up to 16 times more expensive per unit than H.264. Moreover, Sony, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Nokia, and Broadcom all have extensive patents around HEVC and aren’t in either pool. Rumor has it some of them are working to form a third patent pool in the market to license their HEVC technology.

With this in mind, Cisco has announced a new video codec project called Thor. Cisco’s goal is to work with others to provide an alternative to HEVC, with the same or better quality, and no royalty required. Thor is in the very early stages and is not an alternative to HEVC today, but the end goal is to rally others to contribute to the project and make higher-quality video cheaper to deploy, without the need for expensive licensing.

Cisco has hired patent lawyers and consultants familiar with video codecs and created a development process to work through the long list of patents in the space. The plan is to continually evolve the codec to work around other HEVC-related patents, or avoid them altogether. In late summer, Cisco open sourced the code and contributed it to the Internet Engineering Task Force, which already has a standards activity to develop a next-generation royalty-free video codec in its NetVC workgroup. Mozilla has been active in this group, and has been working on a potential HEVC successor called Daala.

Cisco is no stranger to video codecs. The company faced a unique challenge with H.264 as it and other players in the video conferencing industry wanted H.264 included in the webRTC standards, which would have facilitated interoperability with Cisco’s installed base of conferencing equipment. However, Mozilla simply couldn’t ship H.264 due to both the licensing fees as well as incompatibilities between MPEG-LA terms and its open source nature. To fix this, Cisco offered to help with an interesting solution.

Cisco open sourced its H.264 implementation (openh264.org) and, more importantly, agreed to make a binary build of its implementation available as a module. Mozilla produced a version of Firefox that fetches this module from Cisco, and links it upon installation. In this way, Cisco is the distributor of the module and has to carry responsibility for the license fee. Cisco agreed to foot the bill and paid the full cap to MPEG-LA. This eliminated the need to track downloads of the module since doing so would violate Firefox’s privacy guidelines. So in the end, thanks to Cisco, everyone won. Cisco and the videoconferencing community got H.264 into Firefox (and later into the webRTC standards), and Mozilla got H.264 support without needing to actually ship it in Firefox.

Thor is a project; it’s not an actual video codec yet, and Cisco and others have a lot of work to do—probably years of it—before it’s a viable alternative to HEVC. Cisco wants to start getting the word out about Thor with the hope that others will contribute intellectual property and technical experts with video codec knowledge will get involved. Hopefully Google takes note of this and contributes VP9 into the NetVC workgroup, which would be great for everyone. The video codec standards development process benefits from having multiple contributions into the process and then evolving them to take the best of all of them for the best overall result. As Cisco points out, the Opus audio codec got to where it is today in exactly the same kind of way, by combining two very different codecs: Skype’s SILK codec and Xiph.Org’s CELT codec.

When faced with greedy patent pools, Google, Cisco, Mozilla, and others will seek out or create alternatives. HEVC patent pools should take note. If they push too hard and get too greedy, they could be outmaneuvered.

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Cisco Announces New Royalty-Free Video Codec Project to Rival HEVC.”

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