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After JPEG, Now Patent Threat to MPEG-4

Posted by Sachin Garg on 9th February 2006 | Permanent Link

PCMag: AT&T possesses several patents related to video compression, which the company says are an essential component of the MPEG-4 video technology. In a bid to drive its global licensing program, AT&T has targeted Apple Computer, Inc., CyberLink Corp., DivX, Inc., InterVideo, Inc., and Sonic Solutions as unlicensed companies whose products and software utilize the MPEG-4 technology.

AT&T’s pitch is very similar to that of Forgent’s, which they used for their JPEG patent:

“Each of these companies has been advised that they are offering infringing products, that AT&T can provide proof of infringement, and that AT&T is offering a license under reasonable on non-discriminatory terms,” Michael J. Robinson, licensing director of AT&T Intellectual Property Management, wrote in a letter sent in December 2005, and obtained by PC Magazine.

The mentioned companies however refused to to have knowledge of this and claimed to already have all necessary licenses needed. Pentax Corp. and Nero have already acquired the licensees of AT&T’s MPEG-4 patent package last year. It won’t be surprising to see others follow the suit.

We are not seeing the first of such “money-spinning” attempts. Unisys tried this with GIF, Forgent is already spinning money with their Jpeg patent, and now AT&T target’s MPEG-4.

And as we have already seen in Forgent’s JPEG case, it is not just the high profile companies who should shiver, as soon as the lawyers are done getting the big bucks from big players, they will come for smaller players too. Even after the USPTO’s reexamination annoucment, they have licensed it to two more companies.

ISO doesn’t has any protection clauses protecting standard’s users in any way. Even MPEGLA, a patent pooling scheme for MPEG related technology, has a “voluntary” nature which guarantees to sue you if you don’t license their patents but doesn’t guarantees to protect from such wild claims. But we can’t blame them for this, exhaustive patent research is impossible.

Doesn’t all this makes the “standards” loose their standard appeal? Maybe you will be better off using a proprietary format. That way the format owner is the one who has to take care of such liabilities, and most proprietary formats are technically superior to open standards anyway. Ofcourse, interoperatability and vendor lock-in issues are there but now it seems to be a fair trade off.

Unfortunately there arn’t any open-source patent-free standards for videos, fortunately we have better luck with image (PNG) and audio (FLAC) formats. Besides MPEG-4, JPEG2000 is the only other “standard” option available for cutting edge video compression. JPEG2000 recently gained traction with digital cinema. But it will no longer be a surprise to see such patents come up for it within another 3-4 years. It has already had a near miss recently.

9 Responses to “After JPEG, Now Patent Threat to MPEG-4”

  1. R West Says:

    The two recent licensees agreements were dated before the USPTO reexamination decision.

  2. Sachin Garg Says:

    I thought Feb 7th and 9th came after Feb 2nd :-)

    Atleast those are the dates mentioned on Forgent’s annoucements. I think you meant to say that the actual deals were signed much earlier.

    I hope we don’t see any more such announcements from Forgent.

  3. Gene Says:

    I wonder which patents AT&T is referring to…and if those patents are also “questionable”.

  4. Maurice Pelletier Says:

    Proprietary formats provide no gaurantee that they are not infriging on someone else patent. Visto sueing Microsoft over WMV patent infringement, for instance. The whole sueing thing in the software realm has become a whole economy of it’s own. These laws need to be fixed, just writing down an idea on a piece of paper shouldn’t be enough. There should be a working real product before these claims can be made.

  5. Sachin Garg Says:

    My point with proprietary formats was that this way “the format owner is the one who has to take care of the such liabilities”. But ofcourse, its wont be the end of woes.

    I personally am not against patents in general, but such actions are definitely questionable. Yes, laws need to be fixed, I am not sure how.

    And its not just software, this economy is everywhere. Electronic gaints have made this their major revenue source.

  6. Jayant B.Rangari Says:

    MPEG4 codecs is an open source, why make it proprietary, as is MPEG2.

  7. Sachin Garg Says:

    Open source doesn’t means patent free.

    Open source means that you won’t have to implement the algorithm. But to use it legally, you will have to pay licensing fees to all patent holders. This is true for both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 (and Jpeg2000).

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