The leading 4K video format might not get ruined by patents after all

HEVC Advance announces much friendlier licensing terms for H.265 video, which is currently used by Netflix and Amazon.

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Widespread adoption of 4K video streaming faces a smaller hurdle now that key patent holders have eased up on their licensing demands.

The friendlier terms were announced last Friday by HEVC Advance, a group that had been threatening hefty fees for the use of HEVC/H.265 video. The format is already used by Amazon and Netflix in their 4K/UltraHD video offerings, and promises up to 50 percent greater efficiency over the dominant H.264 standard. In other words, it could allow streaming in 4K without much of an uptick in bandwidth.

Previously, HEVC Advance was demanding 0.5 percent of all revenue from streaming services. The group now says it will offer “substantially reduced pricing,” along with a royalty cap for devices and content distributors. In addition, HEVC Advance won’t seek any royalties from streaming services that are free to end-users, public, or non-profit. Overall, the terms are similar to those sought by MPEG LA, a group that holds patents for both H.264 and H.265.

Why the change of heart? It’s possible that HEVC Advance realized it was slowing adoption and therefore shooting itself in the foot. But it’s also worth noting that in recent months, another group called Alliance for Open Media has been working on a royalty-free video format. That group counts Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft among its members, and if they’re successful, HEVC’s patent holders could end up with nothing.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that HEVC Advance is making a big push to establish H.265 right now. Along with the relaxed licensing terms, the group is offering an incentive program for the next 12 months, with a “substantial discount” on prior device and content distribution, and further discounts for the next five years. HEVC/H.265 needs to be implemented at the hardware level, so if lots of device makers get on board, there’s a good chance the format becomes the de facto standard for years to come.

Why this matters: Better video compression isn’t just a blessing for bandwidth-strapped homes. With the threat of home Internet data caps looming large, users may soon have to be very careful about how much they stream, especially in 4K. New compression formats like H.265 can help ease the pain, but only if the industry can come together to implement it. Removing the most burdensome licensing terms for device makers and streaming services is a start.

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