Open Source

MPEG-2 patent expiration opens door for royalty-free use

The last patent covering the still ubiquitous MPEG-2 codec recently expired in the US, allowing for hobbyists, SMBs, and others to use it without paying fees.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • The last patent for the MPEG-2 video codec expired, making it possible to distribute software and sell hardware without paying license fees for MPEG-2 content.
  • MPEG-2 is still used in over-the-air broadcasts in most of the world, and is popular in live TV production for low processing overhead.

The final patent in the United States which covered the MPEG-2 video codec, #7,334,248, expired on February 13, 2018. While newer AV codecs such as H.264 and HEVC—as well as royalty-free codecs such as VP8—have begun to supplant MPEG-2, backward compatibility with hardware and software, as well as low processing overhead have made MPEG-2 an enduringly popular option in 2018. MPEG-2 is also used in the DVD-Video standard, which persists despite the rise of streaming video services.

Presently, the ATSC broadcast standards used in North America and South Korea, as well as DVB-T used in Australia, India, and throughout most of Europe and Africa utilize MPEG-2 encoding for over-the-air broadcasts. (ISDB, used in Japan and many South American countries, does not use MPEG-2.) Video equipment used for live broadcasting still extensively uses MPEG-2, as the encoding latency is as low as a fraction of a second, compared to a several-second delay for higher efficiency codecs.

SEE: Linux distribution comparison chart (Tech Pro Research)

With this expiration, manufacturers of devices that are capable of processing MPEG-2 encoded content, such as TVs, DVD players, USB or PCIe-connected TV tuners, and professional production equipment do not need to pay license fees to MPEG LA. (Other technologies, such as ATSC and H.264, still require license fees.)

Of note, the popular Raspberry Pi single-board computer has hardware support for MPEG-2 as part of the Broadcom VideoCore IV graphics processor, but has historically required the purchase of a license key in order to use. While this key is only £2.40 ($3.36), the expiration of the patents should allow the Raspberry Pi Foundation to unlock this functionality for free. Presently, no announcement about this has been made, it is possible that a contractual agreement may preclude this from happening.

Additionally, many Linux distributions (such as Fedora) do not distribute patent-encumbered codecs due to licensing issues. While support for MPEG-2 can be added through the use of third-party repositories such as RPM Fusion, the expiration of patents will allow the Fedora project and other Linux distributions to include support in the base installation image without manual user configuration. This move mirrors the inclusion of the MP3 codec following the expiration of MP3-related patents last May, as well as the inclusion of Dolby AC3 codecs in March.

For comparison, other distributions have used creative workarounds and legal positioning to deliver the same capabilities. In Ubuntu, these capabilities have been relegated to the ubuntu-restricted-extras package, but is not installed by default. Linux Mint integrates codecs by default, which is legally permissible in France, as software patents are largely unenforceable in the European Union.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the licensing fee assessed by MPEG LA. We regret the error.

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Image: iStockphoto/slidezero_com

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About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.

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