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An Unhappy Surprise: MPEG LA Is Forming a Patent Pool for DASH

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Sometimes when you ignore something, it goes away. Sometimes, however, it comes back and bites you in the rear at the worst possible time. So it is with MPEG LA’s “MPEG LA Announces Call for Patents to Organize Joint License for MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP),” which was announced today

Going back to StreamingMedia.com's initial “What is MPEG-DASH” article in 2011, we indicated that royalties might be an issue. However, four years have passed without a whisper about royalties, and during that time, DASH has been deployed in more places than you can shake a patent attorney at, from browsers to smart TVs.

For hardware vendors, royalties are a cost of doing business, another line on the bill of materials that gets totaled up when computing a retail price. For software vendors, particularly browser developers like Mozilla, however, they are potentially the kiss of death, not only from a philosophical perspective, but from a cost perspective, as well.

One consistent criticism of MPEG LA is that its patent groups haven’t differentiated their royalty structures for the realities of the marketplace, so the reasonable and affordable $25 million cap on HEVC royalties for a phone manufacturer is the same insurmountable $25 million for a browser vendor not named Apple, Google, or Microsoft. Hence, we have no browser-based playback of HEVC today, close to 30 months after the codec was finalized. A similar intransigence regarding DASH could derail HTML5-based video playback just as the Media Source Extensions and Encrypted Media Extensions start to make it a practical reality.

To be clear, MPEG LA’s call for patents is just the first step. As I understand it, however, it’s almost always motivated by an IP owner that wants to monetize its R&D investment. Though DASH contributors Microsoft, Cisco, and Qualcomm have all reportedly indicated that they want a royalty-free solution, it’s not in MPEG LA’s business model to represent a patent group that doesn't seek to collect royalties. At the minimum, the call for patents indicates that royalties are a possibility.

Unfortunately, MPEG LA’s call for patents throws a monkey wrench into a standard years in the making. For all the negative press recently received by HEVC Advance, at the end of the day, companies had enough information to go about their business; the impact was purely financial.

In contrast, MPEG LA’s call for patents was totally unexpected. How many companies considering the transition from Flash to HTML5 incorporated DASH-related content-royalties into their budgets? How many questioned whether or not DASH would be supported by every current browser? Though it is today, the specter of royalties could change that quickly.

The timing of this story didn’t allow for any industry reaction, but it’s going to be fascinating to watch over the next few days and weeks. At the least, it’s a minor speed bump in the Flash to HTML5 transition, but for some, it might also become a brick wall. 

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