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Talkin' Smack: License To Stream

Will MPEG-4 become the standard for streaming media? Maybe not. By Dave Nagel
We've heard a lot in the last months about the glories of MPEG-4, the technology that may or may not emerge as the all-encompassing format for streaming video. Real has announced its general willingness to adopt the technology. Apple, of course, wants to make it synonymous with QuickTime. Microsoft ... well, who knows what Microsoft will do about it? Regardless, it looks like MPEG-4 could conceivably bridge the proprietary media formats out there to make life easy on end users and provide developers with a high-quality, low-bandwidth format for delivering their content.

It seems, however, that one thing is blocking MPEG-4's immediate adoption--MPEG LA, the company that holds some key patents on MPEG-4 technology.

As you've probably read already, MPEG-4 will be a key component of QuickTime 6, the next generation of Apple's core media technology that has become crucial for those who work in digital video editing, motion graphics, compositing, animation and streaming. Apple claims to have QuickTime 6 ready to deliver as a public preview but won't begin distributing it at the moment owing to the licensing terms proposed by MPEG LA.

Well, maybe "won't" isn't strong enough. More like "can't." MPEG LA wants to charge a license fee not only to the companies that integrate MPEG-4 into their products, but also to content developers who deploy their videos in MPEG-4 format. Apple knows very well that, if they go ahead with the proposed licensing terms, MPEG-4 is dead upon release.

Do you want to pay MPEG LA every time somebody watches your movie trailer, your animation or the Webcast of your company's quarterly shareholder meeting? Or how about passing along the burden to your viewers? No, of course not. It's ridiculous. First of all, we'd already be paying for the technology on the encode side. Second, the companies that make the media players--like Apple, Real and Microsoft--will be paying for it on the decode side. So why does anybody need to pay again on the per-user, per-view side? We shouldn't; we won't; and, at present, we can't. The economy for streaming media right now simply won't support a licensing model like this. Not now, anyway.

See, it's not just a matter of a minuscule fee for each MPEG-4 stream. (Of course, it's not so minuscule when 50,000 people tune in to watch your Webcast.) It's also a matter of infrastructure, of paying salaries and purchasing technologies to track and audit usage. Who in streaming media has those kinds of resources?

Apple made this statement last week: "Although the QuickTime 6 software is complete and ready for release, Apple is delaying its release until MPEG-4 video licensing terms are improved. The MPEG-4 licensing terms proposed by MPEG-LA (the largest group of MPEG-4 patent holders) includes royalty payments from companies, like Apple, who ship MPEG-4 codecs, as well as royalties from content providers who use MPEG-4 to stream video. Apple agrees with paying a reasonable royalty for including MPEG-4 codecs in QuickTime, but does not believe that MPEG-4 can be successful in the marketplace if content owners must also pay royalties in order to deliver their content using MPEG-4."

That's putting it mildly.

I met with some members of the QuickTime team last week in Beverly Hills. Among them was Frank Casanova, Apple's head of QuickTime product marketing, who added, "While the encode/decode royalty is fine--Apple's happy to pay it because we believe it adds significant value to QuickTime--the royalties for streaming content on the Web are not just fine. And something needs to be done to bring those more in line with the realities of Internet economy, Internet communities and just the basic way the Internet is used."

Exactly. MPEG-4 is supposed to be an open standard. This, along with its relative quality at low bandwidths, is its major selling point. But how open is a standard when so few will be able to deploy it practically? It just can't work. Casanova says Apple will be working with MPEG LA over the coming weeks to solve this problem. Let's hope they're successful.

Look, nobody's going to suffer terribly if MPEG-4 never leaves the vaults of the U.S. Patent Office. Everything will basically stay the way it is until the key encoder/decoder developers figure out a way to circumvent MPEG LA entirely. But I don't like streaming media the way it is. I don't like having three proprietary formats out there that may or may not work depending on your platform, OS version and even your browser. (Real, I'm looking in your direction.) It's a hassle for developers on the creative side who either have to encode their work in two or three of the major formats or leave out large portions of their audience. And it's a hassle for users to encounter content that doesn't play right.

MPEG-4 is probably the first technology that can be viably deployed over the Internet and that offers the hope of a hassle-free experience for users. Something needs to happen to make this a reality, and that something is for MPEG LA to change its licensing terms.

If you'd like to let MPEG LA know what you think, contact their CEO, Baryn Futa, at bfuta@mpegla.com. For further contacts or more information on PEG LA, visit http://www.mpegla.com.

Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at dnagel@digitalmedianet.com.

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