EU antitrust regulators investigate big tech firms over AV1 codec licensing terms

Mike Wheatley

The Alliance for Open Media that’s made up of some of the biggest names in tech could be about to find itself in hot water with the EU’s antitrust regulators.


The Alliance, whose members include Amazon, Apple, LG Electronics, Google, Meta, Netflix, Microsoft and Samsung Electronics, is the organization responsible for the development of the royalty-free AV1 video format that rivals HEVC (H.265) and VCC (H.266). It was founded back in 2015 to promote and distribute AV1, but the way it is attempting to accelerate adoption of the format might have overstepped European legislator’s boundaries.

A report from Reuters says EU regulators have opened a preliminary investigation that’s focused on the AV1 licensing rules.

In a questionnaire sent to a handful of tech firms several months ago, the European Commission noted that the AOM and its members have been imposing mandatory, royalty-free cross licensing terms when distributing AV1 to some companies whose patents have been deemed as essential contributions to the standard’s specifications.

In the questionnaire, which was obtained by Reuters, the European Commission also sought to learn more about AOM’s patent licensing clause, which could see innovator’s licenses cancelled if they file a lawsuit over the new format.

According to Reuters, the primary concern of regulators is that the terms of AV1’s licensing agreement could be hurting innovation, thus making it more difficult for alternative video codecs to flourish. The report adds that it’s not clear how any fines imposed on AOM would be determined, but it said each of the alliance’s members could be penalised to the tune of 10% of their annual revenue if it’s found guilty of breaching Europe’s antitrust rules.

A spokesperson for the EU commission said the preliminary investigation doesn’t confirm any culpability at this time.

However, analysts say that if an enforcement action materialises it could be a precursor to the EU’s proposed policy changes, scheduled for 2023, which are designed to force big tech firms to change how they manage online content.

AOM’s members, which also include Broadcom, Cisco and Tencent, did not respond to Reuters for a request to comment.

TV hardware makers and platforms have been relatively slow in their uptake of AV1, with adoption only recently beginning to accelerate. AV1 is currently supported in hardware on newer TVs from LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony and TCL. Google has also announced that future Android devices will support the format. Netflix was the first notable streaming platform provider to adopt it a couple of years back, and has since been followed by Google’s Chrome browser, Microsoft Edge and YouTube. Mozilla Firefox has also announced support for AV1, while the chipmaker Qualcomm has said future Snapdragon chips will be able to natively decode AV1.