Murdoch v Branson in UK TV patent battle

It appears that Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch are still unable to get along together. After last year's battle over whether or not to broadcast Sky channels on Virgin Media's UK cable television network, Rupert is now (at least indirectly) bringing out his IP lawyers in an apparent attempt to threaten Virgin in other ways.

Gemstar, currently partly owned by the Murdoch-run media business News Corporation (though apparently not for much longer), has announced initiation of patent litigation proceedings against Virgin Media in the English High Court. Gemstar allege that Virgin Media is infringing three of their European patents: EP0969662, EP1377049, and EP1613066.

Samir Armaly, executive vice president, intellectual property and licensing for Gemstar, is quoted as saying:

We have worked diligently to license Virgin Media for their distribution of various set-top boxes that contain IPGs covered by our patents, but negotiations did not lead to a resolution. The substantial value of our European patent portfolio has been recognized by leading service providers as well as leading consumer electronics manufacturers in the UK and throughout Europe. While we would have preferred to reach a commercial solution with Virgin Media, we ultimately have a responsibility to our shareholders, licensees, and other stakeholders to protect the value of our intellectual property.

The patents include claims directed to techniques for providing interactive program guides (IPGs), and for handling recordings from IPGs. Gemstar also claim to have over 200 granted patents and pending applications covering the UK. According to other reports (from the Guardian), a Virgin Media spokesperson is quoted as saying in response:

"We're confident the courts will see Gemstar's action for what it is: a piece of flagrant opportunism. We have been advised by our external counsel that the case is without merit and we will defend it vigorously."

Fighting talk, the IPKat immediately thought. Is the case actually without merit? What are the granted claims actually about? A quick look at the 'B' specifications on the EPO publications server reveals all. The first patent claims, amongst other things, the following:

An electronic program guide comprising:
- television program listings, each listing including title, telecast time, and channel;
- a time and channel grid guide in which some of the television program listings are displayed;
- a moveable cursor that selectively highlights one of the television program listings displayed in the grid guide; and
- means for changing the time and channel grid guide into a single channel guide of the channel of the highlighted television program listing.

So far so good (or bad, depending on whose side you may be on). The second one claims:
A system for allowing a user to select favorite channels in an electronic program guide, the system comprising:
- means for providing a display of a plurality of cells representing a corresponding plurality of channels available for viewing by the user, wherein each cell comprises a channel number and a program service name for a particular channel of the plurality of channels;
- means for allowing the user to use the display to select a channel among the plurality of channels;
- means for changing a status of said selected channel to that of a favorite channel in response to the user selection;
- means for displaying in cells corresponding to the favorite channels a visual indication that the selected channels are favorite channels; and
- means providing program guide information for the subset of channels having said favorite status in response to a user indication to view the program guide information.

That one sounds a bit too US-centric for the IPKat's tastes, and a bit more difficult to figure out, particularly with all those nasty 'means'. It seems to have something to do with personalised ordering of favourite TV channels though. And finally, the third one claims:
An interactive television program guide system for transferring recorded programs implemented on user television equipment, the system comprising:
- means for displaying in a display screen at least one program listing related to at least one program;
- means for enabling a user to select a program entry from the at least one displayed program listing;
- means for recording the selected program related to the at least one displayed program listing on a digital storage device;
- means for displaying at least one recorded program listing for at least one program recorded on the digital storage device, wherein the at least one recorded program listing includes a recorded program entry for the program recorded on the digital storage device;
- means for enabling the user to select the recorded program entry to transfer the recorded program from the digital storage device to a secondary storage device; and
- means for transferring the recorded program from the digital storage device to a secondary storage device.
This one seems to be about recording and then transferring the recording to something else. Perhaps first on to a hard disk recorder, followed by transfer to a DVD? It seems like that would be covered.

As far as he can see, these all look like exactly the sort of things that the IPKat's trusty 'set-top' box (which actually lives underneath, rather than on top of, his television) does, or at least is able to do, from day to day. He would not therefore be very surprised to see at least some of exactly the same sort of things being possible with Virgin Media's boxes.

One possible difficulty for Gemstar, as many IPKat readers will know, is that the English courts are notoriously difficult to please with infringement actions, and will certainly take a long hard look at the validity of the patents (if the proceedings ever get to that stage). As always, the devil will be in the details of what the patents can validly claim, and of course how far each side is willing to go in defending its position.

The IPKat also notices that one of the patents (EP1613066) was only granted quite recently and, surprisingly, nobody has yet opposed it. There are just a few weeks left in which this will be possible, so someone should probably get busy, just in case.

Update (7 May 2008): As if in response to the IPKat's prompting, the patent mentioned now has six opponents, one of which is Virgin Media Limited. A vast amount of material is now available on the epoline register relating to these oppositions. The IPKat does not expect to see this being resolved at the EPO anytime soon...
Murdoch v Branson in UK TV patent battle Murdoch v Branson in UK TV patent battle Reviewed by David Pearce on Thursday, January 24, 2008 Rating: 5


  1. Having had a look at the patents and the files in the European patent register, and considering the personalities involved, this looks as if it going to generate lots of interesting case law on patentability (and more of the usual sniping between the EPO BoA and English courts). Interestingly enough, there was already an opposition against the first patent, and an appeal after the opposition was rejected. The appeal was then withdrawn, for whatever possible reason.

    The second patent was left unopposed, and as you note, one or several big teams of patent attorneys are very probably frantically preparing an opposition against the third one right now.

    On one hand I look forward to the lines between patentable and non-patentable subject-matter being better drawn. On the other hand, I really would Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch weren't involved in drawing them...

  2. I agree. This could be a big case to follow for those interested in computer programs and hopefully some stuff on mental acts and presentations of information will get in there, too - these last two being subjects in which UK case law is seriously lacking.

    Problem is, like so many of these big cases with business savvy people on either side, it's likely to get settled long before the courts actually hear it. Shame.

    Another fact worth noting, especially for those wondering how these claims aren't obvious: the priority dates go back to 1990 for the first two patents and and 1998 for the third - pretty ancient history in terms of IPGs.



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