Sisvel Announces AV1 Patent Pool

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Sisvel International has announced an expansion of members to its Video Coding Licensing Platform, which offers licensing programs for intellectual property related to the OTT video formats VP9 and AV1.

The platform launched a year ago in defiance of the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia), a coalition of top tech leaders including Google, Microsoft, and Netflix, which promised to offer the codecs royalty-free.

Having set up the original pool with JVC Kenwood, NTT, Orange, Philips, and Toshiba, all of which were licensing patents to MPEG-LA for either the AVC, DASH, or the HEVC patent pools, Sisvel was approached by other companies and set about investigating their related IP claims.

The result is the addition of nine new members: Dolby, Ericsson, GE, SK Telecom, South Korean state-funded research house ETRI, InterDigital (which acquired legacy patents from Technicolor), IP Bridge (Japanese patent administrator which claims to be the largest licensor to the MPEG-LA AVC/H.264 patent pool), NTT Docomo (the mobile arm of Japanese telco NTT), and Xylene (holder of patents previously held by Mitsubishi Electric).

According to the Luxembourg-headquartered Sisvel, hundreds of further patents are in the process of being evaluated. The group expects to reach a total portfolio offered for license of around 1,000 patents for VP9 and nearly 2,000 for AV1. Details of some of these are now published on Sisvel's, website with more updated regularly.

"The AOMedia has been pursuing something that is quite honestly difficult to achieve," Sisvel CEO Mattia Fogliacco in relation to AOMedia's royalty-free goal. "Every video coding technology of note in the last 30 years has been the result of collaboration between companies and investment by those companies.

"It's hard to believe that one group, even the size of AOMedia, could develop all the technology that goes into a video codec."

AOMedia is supported by companies either controlling huge ecosystems or developing chips that are used by hundreds of millions of customers worldwide. They include Amazon, Cisco, Intel, Mozilla, Samsung, Apple, Facebook, IBM, ARM, Nvidia, Tencent, Bitmovin, ATEME, Broadcom, Alibaba, Vimeo, Adobe, CableLabs, and Hulu.

"AOMedia member companies have a good reason to offer their technology in AV1 for free," Fogliacco argues. "They sell chips, video cards, or devices so they make money to finance their R&D techniques in other ways. 

"The people we represent don't have that outlet for their contribution to video coding technology and are seeking to obtain [recompense] in the form of a licence and royalty.

"It boils down to the fact that many patent holders for VP9 and AV1 are not members of AOMedia and so did not make any pledge to make this technology royalty free."

He believes the Alliance's members will no longer dismiss Sisvel's claims out of hand.

"When AOMedia looks at the list of the members we represent, they will realise that the reality is quite a bit different compared to what they imagine it to be. They will realize that the pricing is fair and that we did a thorough job of internal screening with accredited third parties and by our own technical domain experts in establishing a technical foothold for the patents."

The royalty rates, which were set last year, have not changed. They requires that implementors pay €0.32 for consumer display devices (including smartphones, TVs, VR devices, video cameras, and computers) and €0.11 for non-display devices (including set-top boxes, games consoles, streaming media players and graphics cards) using AV1. 

For a licensee that is in full compliance with its obligations, there's the incentive of a lower rate of €0.24 and €0.08 for display and non-display AV1 devices. "The pool is the least expensive and most efficient option to clear" the licensing option, Sisvel states.

Companies already implementing the VP9 technology have been informed of the technology's cost, Sisvel says, while those considering adopting AV1 would know that royalties will apply. 

Fogliacco explains that Sisvel has deliberately taken the year since announcing the founding of the patent pool to investigate other patent claims for AV1 and VP9.

"We did not immediately initiate any licensing activities. We knew it is critical to create a one stop shop to review and validate, or dismiss, the patents of every other company who contacted us. We are now able to ensure that the patent pool is as inclusive as possible for licensable IP."

Sisvel will not seek royalties for encoded content and currently only hardware implementations are being licenced - but this could change.

"We are leaving the door open to see how the market develops," Fogliacco says.  "It could be that devices are sold with AV1 decoding capability which only have that capability because of firmware downloads or software updates down the line so we're keeping our options open."

Under the AOMedia scheme, patent-holding companies that implement AV1 rescind their right to licensable (fee-charging) IP. Sony, maker of smartphones running Android 10, is cited by Sisvel as an example. 

Excluding those companies, Sisvel says it has aggregated the vast majority of other companies with licensable AV1 and VP9 IP.

"We believe pools create efficiency by enabling potential implementors to sign one agreement licensing multiple patent portfolios in one transaction at a reasonable and transparent cost," he says.

AOMedia criticised the launch of the AV1 patent pool as contrary to its objectives. Without explicitly naming Sisvel, it said the announcement last March "endorses an environment of high patent royalty requirements and licensing uncertainty" which like the MPEG LA-administered MPEG-2 and H.264 pools "would limit the potential of free and open online video technology."

By contrast AOMedia intends to settle patent licensing terms with the royalty-free AOMedia Patent License 1.0.

AOMedia must own the IP rights for all foundational techniques in AV1/VP9 "to avoid infringing upon third-party IP," Sisvel states.

AV1 does share the same hybrid codec architecture as H.264 and HEVC. These building blocks include transform/scaling/quantization, intra- and inter-prediction, loop filtering, in-the-loop decoder (including inverse quantization and transform), and entropy coding. 

In 2018, Netflix and Intel set out to develop a production-grade AV1 encoder that offers performance and scalability.

Netflix believes that SVT-AV1 can be used as a platform for R&D of a future AV2 codec. Sisvel declined to comment whether members of its patent pool would claim IP on this development.

Sisvel, which describes its role as a "market transactions facilitator," was incorporated in 1982 as a joint venture among the principal Italian manufacturers of television sets. Sisvel was the administrator of Digital Terrestrial TV (DVB-T) and its evolutions (DVB-T2 and DVB-S2X). It currently operates patent pools and joint licensing programs in the fields of mobile communication, wireless local area networking 802.11, video coding, digital video and display technologies, recommendation engines and broadband access to data networks.

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