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Cisco Project Thor Seeks Path to a Royalty-Free Video Codec

August 14, 2015

Members of the WebRTC Solutions Community know that one of the gating factors to more widespread adoption of WebRTC has been the contention over which video codec should be used. We thought everyone had put their guns back in their holsters when the community decided to support not one but two next generation codecs, Google’s proprietary VP9 codec, and the industry standard H.265 (HEVC) codec, which is the successor to H.264 (AVC). However, as a recent blog by Jonathan Rosenberg Cisco Fellow and Vice President points out, there is still trouble in paradise, which Cisco is attempting to resolve with the launch of Project Thor.

As Rosenberg explains, here is the problem:

“Unfortunately, the patent licensing situation for H.265 has recently taken a turn for the worse. Two distinct patent licensing pools have formed so far, and many license holders are not represented in either. There is just one license pool for H.264. The total costs to license H.265 from these two pools is up to 16 times more expensive than H.264, per unit. H.264 had an upper bound on yearly licensing costs, whereas H.265 has no such upper limit.

These licensing terms preclude usage of H.265 in any kind of open source or freely distributed software application, such as Web browsers. They also preclude its usage in freemium products – like WebEx or Cisco Spark – which have versions that users can use for free. Thus, while H.265 is still a good fit for hardware products like our telepresence room systems, it is not something that can serve as a universal video codec across hardware and software. Thus, we believe the industry needs a high quality, next-generation codec that can be used everywhere.”

As a way forward for everyone, so that licensing issues do not get in the way, Cisco as the headline notes has created Project Thor. The blog outlines the steps Cisco is taking as a means to put all contention in the rear view mirror for the community. The important thing to note is as Rosenberg relates regarding Thor, Cisco has:

Image via Shutterstock
  • Open sourced the code, http://thor-codec.org
  • Contributed Thor as an input to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has begun a standards activity to develop a next-gen royalty free video codec in its NetVC workgroup.
  • Been looking at the efforts of Mozilla which is working this problem in an effort called Daala
  • This is a tricky area since there are a lot of patent issues to be investigated and resolved. And, as Rosenberg suggests, interested parties are encouraged to participate in Thor to help develop the codec, to participate in the patent analysis, or to contribute their own Intellectual Property Rights on a royalty-free basis.

The key of course is in the words “royalty free.”  As I have stated in previous articles, the critical path to WebRTC adoption is standardization on foundational issues relating to interoperability since history says all boats really do rise when the tide comes in. Let’s hope that Thor’s hammer can put the codec issue to rest sooner rather than later. 


Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

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