Much of the initial commentary on Google’s open sourcing of the VP8 codec it acquired in purchasing On2 has breathlessly, and uncritically, centered on the purported game-changing impact of the move.

But unfortunately, these commentaries miss an essential point that Google has studiously avoided mentioning the need to standardize royalty free codecs (not just release an open source snapshot).

But since forward motion is good simply because it is forward motion, shouldn’t one hesitate to look this gift horse in the mouth?

Unfortunately, in the case of multimedia codecs and technologies, ignoring open standards and instead presenting open sourcing as a fait accompli solution just works to the detriment of the entire open community.

The open Web needs royalty free standards (true, multi-stakeholder run standards, not unilateral actions) — that is its essential genius.  And without them, proprietary, vendor-controlled projects, even those that self-label as “open”, do little good and more likely more harm than good.  We all have the right to expect, and demand, that the Web’s current beneficiaries and leaders stay true to this fundamental open standards proposition, and not just forget it when convenient.  And this includes Google.

It is well known that many experts consider it now feasible to standardize serviceable royalty-free codecs.  MPEG (the standards group, not the unaffiliated license administrator MPEG LA) has even put out a resolution to that effect, and IETF has recently launched a royalty free codec activity in a similar spirit.  Google should get on board on this important trend, not undermine it with studied avoidance.  So far they have not.

It is important to understand that patent claims are typically handled under confidential non-disclosure agreements.  So unless there is a forcing function (litigation or standardization-required disclosure and review), there is no effective way to know who is actually claiming, and who is paying, what.  And there are documented cases of this going on for literally years.  So leaving VP8 code out in the open with nothing but a mutual non-assert license leaves the patent issue not only unaddressed, but up for capture by those with uncharitable agendas, and on their turf and time frame (let’s at least hope that’s sooner rather than later — but remember, forming patent pools rarely disclose all their patents up front).

Not a smart move, and hopefully one Google will realize the error of and correct quickly (here’s a useful cover story: we intended to smoke out patent holders all along, and we were going to get around to working with standards groups when we had the chance).  Contributing VP8 to a standards group with a strong patent disclosure policy would be a good corrective move; it would force lurking patent holders to come fully into the public. Not perfect, but a step forward.

Google’s open sourcing of VP8 is very different from Sun’s Open Media Stack codec work, and for that matter other responsible open video initiatives, which have based their work on identifiable IPR foundations, documented their patent strategy, and have been willing to work with bona-fide standards groups to address and resolve IPR issues.  When companies like Google ignore standards and go on their own in such important areas as video codec standards, they just undermine the very standards groups the open Web needs to thrive and grow.

We’d never accept a brand name company unilaterally declaring control of the next version of TCP/IP, HTML, or any other of a host of foundational Internet and Web standards simply by open sourcing something they’d bought.  Codecs will also be such a foundational component, a critically important one.  Just because the technology of codecs might be less familiar than some other technologies is no reason to abandon the royalty-free standardization philosophy that has built the Web.

Certainly not based on the complete feel-good-marketing non-explanation for this radical abandonment that Google has offered so far.   Because patent pool licensing is out of control?  No argument about that from me (or antitrust complainants Nero, VIZIO, and others).  Because Google “must have done its patent homework”?  OK, if so why not hand that homework in as a contribution to a standards group where it could get some expert scrutiny?

So I would encourage Google to do the right open standards thing — join and contribute to responsible standards groups that are working to solve the royalty-free open standards need.  Be a part of the royalty-free, open-standards solution, not part of the problem.

UPDATE

Tip of the hat to Xiph’s leader, Chris Montgomery, for good tongue-in-cheek humor:

I, FOR ONE, WELCOME OUR NEW WEBM OVERLORDS

Not to confuse: Xiph is wholeheartedly supporting WebM, but another interesting remark by Montgomery:

“But Monty isn’t worried about the MPEG-LA suing him or anyone at the WebM Project.

“The recent saber-rattling by Jobs felt more like a message to his own troops than
a warning shot to ours,” he says. “MPEG itself has always has an internal contingent
that has pushed hard for royalty-free baselines from MPEG, and the missives about
video codecs and patents were probably meant for them, not us.”

MPEG — Working Group 11 of  ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29 — has issued a resolution seeking active participation in developing a Type-1 (royalty-free) video coding standard.

“Given that there is a desire for using royalty free video coding technologies for some applications such as video distribution over the Internet, MPEG wishes to enquire of National Bodies about their willingness to commit to active participation (as defined by Section 6.2.1.4 of the JTC1 directives) in developing a Type-1 video coding standard.”

See below for publicly-released information from recent MPEG meetings on royalty-free standardization.

Organizations and experts interested in actively participating in a type-1 (royalty-free) standardization activity should contact their SC29/MPEG National Body or liaison.

—————-

Glossary:

SC: Subcommittee.  SC 29 is the ISO/IEC Subcommittee covering coding of Audio, Picture, Multimedia and Hypermedia Information (MPEG and JPEG).

WG: Working Group.  A subsidiary body of an SC, that undertakes work planned with the SC.

NB: National Body.  The members of a Subcommittee, one member per country.

P-Member: A participating, voting NB (as opposed to O-Member, a non-voting observer).  There are 25 P-Members of SC 29 (voting country members).

WD: Working Draft.  Preparatory-stage draft of specification.

CD: Committee Draft.  Committee-stage draft of specification.

RAND: Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory.  General term for patents licensed for royalties, rather than available for use on a royalty-free basis.

NP: New Work Item Proposal.

MPEG: Moving Pictures Experts Group.  WG 11 of SC 29, with charter for coding of moving pictures and audio.

Type 1:  Option 1 on the 2007 ITU/ISO/IEC Common Patent Policy Patent Statement and Licensing Form, stating “The Patent Holder is prepared to grant a free of charge license to an unrestricted  number of applicants on a worldwide, non-discriminatory basis and under other reasonable terms and conditions to make, use, and sell implementations of the above document.”

—————-

Resolutions, the 92nd SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-04-19/23, Dresden, Germany

SC 29/WG 11 N 11241

http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11185c.htm

Type-1 License Video Coding Standard

Given that there is a desire for using royalty free video coding technologies for some applications such as video distribution over the Internet, MPEG wishes to enquire of National Bodies about their willingness to commit to active participation (as defined by Section 6.2.1.4 of the JTC1 directives) in developing a Type-1 video coding standard. MPEG would appreciate if NBs provide the names of individual organisations that will commit resources. MPEG will use the information gathered from the NB responses, particularly including the number of countries willing to actively participate, in order to decide at the Geneva meeting whether to request approval of a new Work Item Proposal. MPEG does not intend to reopen the issue, unless strong support of at least five national bodies is presented in the future.

—————-
ISO/IEC JTC 1 Directives, 5th Edition, Version 3.0

ISO/IEC JTC 1 N8557

http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/directives.pdf

6.2.1 New Work Item Proposals (NP)

6.2.1.3 … In order to be approved, the proposal shall be supported by a majority of all P-members of JTC 1 with at least five P-members of the SC to which the project will be assigned committed to active participation. …

6.2.1.4  Active participation for NPs includes involvement by NBs in more than one of the following:

• Attendance at meetings (see also 7.11);
• Contributing to the development of the WD;
• Performing substantial review on a CD and subsequent stages;
• Submitting detailed comment with ballots.

—————-

Meeting Report, the 91st SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2010-01-18/22, Kyoto, Japan

SC 29/WG 11 N 11077

http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n11151c.htm

Royalty-free Codecs

In order to help with the discussion on royalty-free codecs, several National Bodies provided input as requested in N11066 Call for Comments on Possible Future activities on “Royalty-free” Standardization by MPEG. MPEG thanks with N11222 Responses to NB position statements on N1066. No clear conclusions could be drawn from the diverse responses. Furthermore, neither MPEG nor ISO can guarantee that a standard developed with the goal of being RAND or royalty-free will actually be RAND or royalty-free since the analysis of patents is outside of the scope and competence of ISO and MPEG.

MPEG issued document N11221 Possible future actions on standardization with Type 1 licensing where the legal issues are summarized and discussed. Type 1 licensing refers to option 1 of the joint patent declaration form, where an intellectual property holder can indicate that he will not charge for his IP. Laymen refer to this type of licensing as royalty-free.

However, MPEG believes that 20 years after its publication some technology will become royalty-free. Since parts of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 were published in 2013 and 2014, candidates are a MPEG-2 Part 2 baseline profile carved out of MPEG-2 Part 2, MPEG-1 Part 3 Layer 2 baseline profile carved out of the MPEG-1 part 3 Layer 2, a MPEG-1 Part 3 Layer 3 baseline profile carved out of the MPEG-1 part 3 Layer 3, and a MPEG-2 Part 1 baseline profile carved out of the MPEG-2 part 1. These candidates would be compatible with existing equipment. Alternatively, MPEG may define a new set of standards which are believed to be RF provided such standards provide sufficient differentiation to be successful in the market place.

—————-

Meeting Report, the 90th SC 29/WG 11 Meeting, 2009-10-26/30, Xian, China

SC 29/WG 11 N 10876

http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc29/open/29view/29n10944c.htm

Royalty-free Codecs

The Chinese National Body encouraged MPEG to discuss the option of royalty-free codecs developed within MPEG (N11065 Responses to CNNB position statement on more friendly IPR policy). Especially small companies perceive licensing as cumbersome. Some royalty free standards have become successful in the market place.

MPEG might consider royalty-free codecs only as a supplement to its current standards development process. The preliminary results of the discussion are summarized in N11067 Summary of Issues and question from the 90th MPEG Meeting in connection with CNNB input document (M16903). In order to help with this discussion, MPEG requests National Bodies to provide input according to N11066 Call for Comments on Possible Future activities on “Royalty-free” Standardization by MPEG.

—————-

It is gratifying to see the FCC Broadband Plan include an open set top recommendation (4.12), firmly grounded in the FCC’s continuing responsibility to implement section 629 of the 1996 Telco Act to “assure the commercial availability” of TV devices from retail and unaffiliated sources.

And welcome words in the frank acknowledgment that over 14 years “the FCC’s attempts to meet Congress’s objectives have been unsuccessful”.

So a new proceeding will no doubt move forward, given the much-documented crying need, multi-stakeholder support, and explicit congressional directive.

But how to tell if this time the effort is on track, and not just another capture-ready MacGuffin?

Ask four questions:

– Is it specified in an uncaptured venue?
– Does it use unencumbered technologies?
– Is “it” a network interface?
– Does it work for the Web?

Overview presentation downloadable here, slideshow below.

[album: http://robglidden.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/FCCOpenSetTop/]

Standards “would thwart, not advance, innovation” and “entail crippling delays”  because they are “extremely time consuming, often divisive, and sometimes used by one faction to block the progress of another or to promote its own intellectual property portfolio”.

It would be easy to dismiss comments like these in the Cable industry’s latest response to the FCC set top box inquiry (#27) that question the wisdom and feasibility of a standardized multi-network gateway as just so much diversionary polemics, masked as the caution of experience.  But a closer look is merited in part because as discussed before, royalty-free standards can be America’s broadband advantage.

On the first point — the wisdom of a multi-network gateway — the NCTA has a point.  Adding another intervening box between your TV and your TV content may have a certain quick-fix political logic in the tortured history of the 1996 Telco Act’s goal of competitive services and devices.

But the important question isn’t how many boxes it should take to hook your TV to the Internet (or any network), but how few — and that will take an Internet-acceptable open video standard.

And on this score, the existing gateway initiatives have little to offer, and are even dismissive of the core need in the first place.  The Digital Living Network Alliance, seen by some as the leading gateway standards group, said flippantly in their filing to the FCC:

“there are few (if any) standards for Internet video. Another way of looking at it is there are too many standards for Internet video. DLNA Guidelines by themselves do not solve this problem.”

Instead, DLNA promotes a philosophy and architecture of “indirection”:

“network-specific hindrances can be addressed by ‘adding one layer of indirection'”

The software domain maxim that DLNA bases its strategy on — “any software problem can be solved by adding one layer of indirection” — is well-known in software development, but it is a stretch to assume it is therefore a particularly appropriate or adequate policy architecture for the multiple networking, standards, industry structure and business problems of set top boxes meeting the Internet.

DLNA and NCTA are far from alone in proposing variants of the theme of the devolving cycle of standards pragmaticism — ambivalence — doubting — bashing (check the UK version here).

But there is a better way. Instead of bashing standards, standards groups, industry groups, participants, and regulators should turn their focus and energies to how to make standards work.

References

REPLY COMMENTS OF THE NATIONAL CABLE & TELECOMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATION ON NBP PUBLIC NOTICE #27

January 27, 2010

http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020384091

“- Proposals to require an ANSI standardized gateway solution would entail crippling delays. Standards activities are extremely time consuming, often divisive, and sometimes used by one faction to block the progress of another or to promote its own intellectual property portfolio. It would require years just to get the standards developed, at which point products would still have to be designed, manufactured, and brought to market.

– Subjecting this dynamic marketplace to an ANSI standards process in which each industry participant can delay or veto the innovations of the other would thwart, not advance, innovation.

– These demands call for massive standards activities required in multiple standards bodies for multiple services, interfaces, and technologies. Standardization and related intellectual property clearances are extremely time consuming.

– Zenith, the intellectual property holder for the rejected VSB system, sought to use the process of amending SCTE 40 to put VSB transport into SCTE 40. It slowed the standards process by submitting the majority of objections to SCTE 40 and an unsuccessful appeal to ANSI, in an effort to impose VSB transport onto the cable architecture. This process took years to resolve.

– Under the CEA standards process, IS-6 became IS-132, which became EIA-542, which became CEA-542B. It took more than 13 years to produce the very simple Cable Channel Plan standard. This slow process was one of the reasons that led to the development of CableLabs, so that the cable industry could innovate more rapidly.

– DBS could not have offered MPEG-4 if it had to await elaborate industry consensus or rule change.

– AT&T still would not have deployed U-verse if it were required to wait until IPTV issues were set through industry consensus or by an ANSI-accredited body.

– Had Verizon deferred its hybrid IP/QAM offering until such processes were completed, it too would still be waiting to enter the marketplace.

COMMENTS OF THE DIGITAL LIVING NETWORK ALLIANCE

http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020354067

These network-specific hindrances can be addressed by “adding one layer of indirection”7—a gateway device.

As some have already commented, there are few (if any) standards for Internet video.10 Another way of looking at it is there are too many standards for Internet video. DLNA Guidelines by themselves do not solve this problem; however, a DLNA gateway device which is able to receive Internet video is able to bridge that content onto a DLNA home network.11

Last August I questioned if the BBC-led hybrid DTV Project Canvas was “seduced by the cynical allure of a semi-open ‘standards-based open environment‘” .

Many kudos to the DTG — the lead UK DTV standards group — who today released its tough-love “parallel process” criticism in the BBC Trust oversight consultation.

To wit:  “it is unreasonable for the Canvas JV to claim that they have fully engaged with industry” while running “a parallel process” operated “separately from, and regardless of,” the DTG’s own standards work, with “lack of clarity over the IPR status”.

The BBC Trust should heed the words that “only a mandatory requirement for the Canvas JV to engage with industry to deliver an agreed specification can achieve widespread market success”.

Hang in there, DTG, there’s standards-bashing hiding by behind pragmatic waffling on this side of the pond too.

But to respin a Churchillian quip:  standards are the worst form of industry governance, except for all the rest.

References

http://robglidden.com/2009/08/trust-but-verify-ipr-bbc-project-canvas/

So why shouldn’t Project Canvas also be built on royalty-free standards, advancing rather than opposing the thrust of the Open Internet and World Wide Web that has enabled the Project Canvas opportunity in the first place?

Is the BBC slipping unthinkingly into a common parlance of the day – seduced by the cynical allure of a semi-open “standards-based open environment” — open enough to help me, closed enough to hurt my competitors, with vendor complicity bought by the potential competitive advantage of conveniently under-disclosed patent royalties or other control points?

This is an under-addressed question that the BBC Executive, BBC Trust and proposed joint venture have skirted so far in this consultation, and should be fully addressed before proceeding.  A Free-To-View TV Internet is both a TV and a network stewardship.

http://dtg.org.uk/publications/responses/DTG_Canvas_Prov_Con_Resp_Final.pdf

[F]eedback from our membership indicates that there remains widespread concern in the industry that there is a parallel process in place – with a Canvas specification being developed between the Canvas JV and its innovation partners separately from, and regardless of, the DTG’s Connected TV specification work.
..
Without the release of these documents we believe it is unreasonable for the Canvas JV to claim that they have fully engaged with industry via the DTG. The failure by the BBC or the Canvas JV to release this documentation to the DTG has severely impacted upon the ability of the DTG’s Connected TV Working Groups to deliver a Connected TV specification in a timely manner.

DTG members have voiced concern that there is a lack of clarity over the IPR status of Canvas technical documentation. As a result, the DTG’s membership believes that the Trust should make approval of the BBC Executive’s Canvas proposal conditional on the clarification of the precise IPR position of the Canvas commercial requirements, technical documentation and specification.

Feedback we have received from our membership indicates that the consensus among our members is that only a mandatory requirement for the Canvas JV to engage with industry to deliver an agreed specification can achieve widespread market success and represent the best interests of the UK consumers and TV Licence Fee payers.

The FCC Video Device Innovation Notice [1] asks one of the most fundamentally central questions to the prospect of not only a viable Broadband Plan for America, but also to the very future of the Open Internet that has revolutionized communications systems of all humanity:

“How could the Commission develop a standard that would achieve a retail market for devices that can attach to all MVPD [Multichannel Video Programming Distributor] networks and access Internet-based video sources?”

There can be little doubt that video is a central broadband driver, but simply put, today there is no standard for “Internet-based video”.  Just ask the World Wide Web Consortium, who has struggled for years to no success to find an acceptable video standard to incorporate into HTML5, the first major update to the core Web standard in a decade [2].

Of course, there is a lot of video on the Internet, but it is controlled by a hodge-podge of proprietary and so-called “semi-open” plug-ins that do not meet even the loosest definition of “standard” and certainly nothing that comes near meeting the requirements, processes, and practices of the standardizing bodies of the Web and Internet.

So developing a standard that could attach to both MVPD and Internet video would require in the first place developing a standard for Internet video, on terms acceptable to the Open Internet.  The FCC has much to contribute on this score, as do broadcasters in the burgeoning EBU-led “hybrid broadcast-broadband” initiative, which has already developed clear and measurable requirements specifically for hybrid, multi-network video standards [3].

But the non-solution to this problem is as clear as it is unacceptable.  Forcing the Open Internet to adopt the closed, “walled-garden” model and captured, controlled specifications of status-quo gridlock that are dogging digital TV, digital cable, and IPTV, or concede to proprietary control, would certainly damage the Open Internet and perpetuate the dysfunctional tendencies of “standards as trade association lobbying” that underpin this FCC notice.

The right way forward is equally clear.  Standardize, in appropriate organizations and with appropriate oversight, in the Open Internet model of uncaptured, royalty-free process, the needed elements: codecs, transport stream, conditional access, and UI middleware.

The good news is that media standards gridlock has been a global challenge addressed by regulators in retail-scale national standards, and initiatives already underway on all of these elements point to best practices, way forward to success, and pitfalls to avoid [4].  Gridlock, capture, patent overcharging, and proprietary control – key underlying contributors to the absence of the robust retail, unaffiliated device markets as contemplated by Section 629 and this notice — are not the only inevitable outcome, they can be addressed [5].

The Commission should evaluate these activities and incorporate appropriate lessons into a proactive video standardization element of the broadband plan for America, one that envisions video standards to embrace, empower, and leverage the best of the Open Internet, not one that protects walled gardens through silos of pseudo-standards and control points.

References

Notes are available in the FCC comment filing available here.

Gridlock, capture, patent overcharging, and proprietary control – key underlying contributors to the absence of the robust retail, unaffiliated device markets as contemplated by Section 629 and this notice — are not the only inevitable outcome, they can be addressed

After a lively debate, the IETF appears to be moving forward with a royalty-free audio codec standardization activity.  Here’s to its successful launch and positive outcome.

I’ve put a brief summary at the mpegrf.com site, and there is a good summary here.

The group’s email discussion alias is here — and my view, expressed there (echoing this), is pretty straightforward:

[codec] Royalty Free codec standards — don’t settle for less”

Here is my view, perhaps you share it, perhaps you don’t.

What the world needs now is royalty-free, standardized codecs. This is critical to the future of the Web, and the progress the Internet has brought to the world, and will bring to the world.

Video, audio, transport, the whole thing. Evaluated, vetted for patents. Under an appropriate, responsible and complete royalty free process. No less.

IETF, ITU, and ISO/MPEG should all get going on this important activity — after all why shouldn’t all of these organizations include this as core to their mission.

I have, and no doubt you have too, seen countless explanations why this should not, could not, will not, rather not, might not, or can not happen. Some well meaning and sincere, some from vested interests.

There are too many “powerful” interests against it. “Important” commercial interests are ambivalent. It is too hard “legally” or “politically” or “technically”. It is just too confusing to think through. There is no longer a critical mass that cares enough about keeping the future of the Open Internet open and royalty free. The well meaning are ignorant, or naive. Etc.

Don’t settle. Take the issue of royalty free, standardized codecs all the way to the top of these organizations. Do what it takes. If it requires new organizations, start them. It it requires revised processes, revise them. This is the spirit that built the Web and the Internet, this is the spirit that is its lifeblood, and this is the spirit that needs to be at the heart of its future.

Don’t settle. Don’t let those who have tried hard already, or have only half-heartedly tried, justify the status quo or their half-heartedness. Encourage them to focus on how to take the next steps.

Don’t let convenient “interpretations” of standards processes be an excuse for never starting, never finishing, or never setting up processes that will work. Need more legal background? Find it. More technical information? Get it.

Don’t settle. The world has plenty of patent-encumbered media standards, plenty of proprietary solutions, and plenty of standards in other domains that have figured out how to deliver royalty free.

But the world does not have enough royalty-free codec standards, so this is the task that needs to be addressed.

Rob

Here is my view, perhaps you share it, perhaps you don't.

What the world needs now is royalty-free, standardized codecs. This is critical to the future of the Web, and the progress the Internet has brought to the world, and will bring to the world. Video, audio, transport, the whole thing. Evaluated, vetted for patents. Under an appropriate, responsible and complete royalty free process. No less. IETF, ITU, and ISO/MPEG should all get going on this important activity -- after all why shouldn't all of these organizations include this as core to their mission. I have, and no doubt you have too, seen countless explanations why this should not, could not, will not, rather not, might not, or can not happen. Some well meaning and sincere, some from vested interests. There are too many "powerful" interests against it. "Important" commercial interests are ambivalent. It is too hard "legally" or "politically" or "technically". It is just too confusing to think through. There is no longer a critical mass that cares enough about keeping the future of the Open Internet open and royalty free. The well meaning are ignorant, or naive. Etc. Don't settle. Take the issue of royalty free, standardized codecs all the way to the top of these organizations. Do what it takes. If it requires new organizations, start them. It it requires revised processes, revise them. This is the spirit that built the Web and the Internet, this is the spirit that is its lifeblood, and this is the spirit that needs to be at the heart of its future. Don't settle. Don't let those who have tried hard already, or have only half-heartedly tried, justify the status quo or their half-heartedness. Encourage them to focus on how to take the next steps. Don't let convenient "interpretations" of standards processes be an excuse for never starting, never finishing, or never setting up processes that will work. Need more legal background? Find it. More technical information? Get it. Don't settle. The world has plenty of patent-encumbered media standards, plenty of proprietary solutions, and plenty of standards in other domains that have figured out how to deliver royalty free. But the world does not have enough royalty-free codec standards, so this is the task that needs to be addressed.

Rob

In late 2001, to much industry enthusiasm, H.264 and MPEG-4 AVC were launched as the world’s unifying codec family in a joint project between ITU and ISO/MPEG with the undertaking that the “JVT [Joint Video Team] will define a “baseline” profile. That profile should be royalty-free for all implementations.”

The failure to deliver on this royalty-free baseline is more than a lively standards history tale.

Years of exhausting disputes and doubts have recently resolved with court rulings soundly vindicating the original royalty-free process and vision.

And now, more than ever, the Web and broadband revolution need these groups to deliver on this 2001 royalty-free undertaking.  And in the coming months, ITU and ISO are poised to begin work on a next generation of codec and transport stream standards.

I have summarized a pro royalty-free viewpoint on how ITU and ISO/MPEG can and should go forward and complete this royalty free undertaking here.

Last week, Business News Americas broke the story that the ATSC Forum — the industry group that lobbies for the international adoption of the US ATSC digital TV standard of the Advanced Television Systems Committee — plans to close its doors at the end of September.

Although the ATSC Forum’s closure has gotten little attention in the US, the story has been picked up in South America, where the ATSC Forum’s lobbying efforts have been swamped by momentum for the Japanese-Brazilian ISDB system (an under-reported story in itself, as some are recognizing).
tv_latinamerica
The ATSC Forum was “established in late 2001 to promote DTV and ATSC standards, especially throughout Latin America”, and has lobbied other countries, including the Philippines, as have rivals European-led DVB and Japanese-led ISDB.  And as quoted below, the Forum has cleverly worded a fantasy strategy to skirt patent fees that will no doubt bring a chuckle on close examination.

Recent strident exception the ATSC Forum has taken to contentions here that there are structurally-flawed patent licensing processes at the heart of ATSC and DTV communities (reiterated below as recently as last month in Haiti, see below), puts an interesting light on the reported reasoning that the ATSC Forum is giving for closing its doors:

“manufacturing companies that represent the ATSC are now less concerned about which digital TV standard the equipment they make represents and so are increasingly less inclined to finance a group advocating one standard or another”.

Really?  Surely, specific patent or commercial interests may be the last standing in an end-game of standards advocacy, particularly when interests are unclearly spread across multiple standards and advocacy groups.

And though the ATSC Forum website does not list which members are sponsors ($25K/year) or just general members ($5K/year), four vendors appear prominent at the website in recent years (Zenith/LG, Samsung, Dolby, and Harris).  Three, as well as the ATSC Forum and the ATSC, have filed in the FCC inquiry on patent royalty overcharging challenged by the CUT FATT group, and Harris, the largest transmission equipment supplier for ATSC, turned against certain patent licensing practices and sided with the CUT FATT group.

But according to government reports, in 2003, the ATSC Forum received $399K in export promotion market development funds from the International Trade Administration of the US Department of Commerce.  Ouch –  patent pool promotion as export trade policy.

Indeed, a 2004 success story at the US Department of Commerce Market Development Cooperator Program website describes the 3-year campaign in optimistic terms, predicting $8 billion in US exports (subsequently revised down to $5.6 million).  And also in terms that likely seemed entirely reasonable at the time, but which now seem vaguely like a fight-the-last-war replay of the 1960s Cold War color TV standards wars — little resembling the new globalization-era, each-country-is-a-partner ethic reflected in the launch of the new ISDB-T International Forum web site for South America.

And in 2007, the US National Association of Broadcasters funded a mobile TV initiative for $750K with many did-they-learn-the-right-lessons parallels to the ATSC Forum.

So the ATSC Forum is leaving unfinished business and (potentially) unlearned lessons:

Patent Licensing Processes Need Reform.
Hybrid Broadcast-Broadband Needs Uncaptured Standards.
The Curious Rebirth of Free TV Needs Tending.
US Mobile TV Risks Institutionalizing Same Mistakes.
Network policy in the broadband age should promote a global level playing field

In sum, the Network Policy Techno-Politics mix is still out of balance — but to ATSC Forum’s credit they have included technical reasoning along with political advocacy — something that recent FCC broadband dialog seems to lack so far.

To quote Richard Elkus’ 2008 “Winner Take All: How Competitiveness Shapes the Fate of Nations” (it was Elkus who in 1988 sounded the call that US digital TV policy may “reflect the ebbing tide of United States technological and economic leadership”):

“All of America’s technological industries and institutions are linked. … Strategy is everything.”

References

“Patent license fees are not important in the selection of a DTV transmission standard …. For almost every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, no patents apply for products manufactured and sold within that country”

ATSC Digital Television Update, Robert K. Graves, Chairman, ATSC Forum, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, August 7, 2009, http://www.conatel.gouv.ht/atsc/ATSC%20Update%20and%20Advantages.pdf

“But almost none of the patents that apply in the U.S. have been filed in the Philippines, so IP fees will be far less in the Philippines than the small fees that apply in the U.S.

Dolby has indicated that it has not registered its AC-3 patents in the Philippines, and consequently, Dolby cannot, and will not, charge patent royalties for products that are manufactured and sold in the Philippines (or on products bought from or sold to other non-patent countries by the Philippines).

The ATSC Standard incorporates the VSB transmission system developed by Zenith Electronics. However, no Zenith patents associated with VSB have been filed in the Philippines (compared to 13 in North America), so there can be no IP license fee associated with the VSB transmission system for products produced and sold in the Philippines.”

Response of the ATSC Forum to the Consultative Document on Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) of the National Telecommunications Commission Department of Transportation and Communications Republic of the Philippines,  October 30, 2006  http://atscforum.org/resources/pressreleases/2006/PR-061030-Response.pdf

I’ve pointed out how the EBU, the world’s largest organization of national broadcasters, is beating the drum to avoid patent lock-ins in new standards for hybrid broadcast-broadband TV services.

EBU’s own write-up of last week’s EBU/ETSI workshop is even more direct:

“Broadcasters are haunted by the ghosts of the submarine patents which emerged with MHP … This time this has to be avoided.”

The EBU should take a closer look at Ginga and Java DTV, which have taken the MHP patent issue head-on …

References

Licensing will be key for Hybrid Broadcast Broadband

10 September 2009

“… Finally there was an interactive discussion with the packed audience. Two important areas emerged from the discussions. The first was the need for attention to licence fees in these new systems. Broadcasters are haunted by the ghosts of the submarine patents which emerged with MHP five years after services had begun, and which was responsible for missed opportunities for its use. This time this has to be avoided. Particulary for the hybrid broadcasting area where the world is used to licence free Internet systems.”