The latest twist in the ongoing saga of Richard Branson's Virgin Media and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation sees Gemstar TV Guide Inc, a US TV listings company currently 41% owned by the Murdoch-run News Corporation, bring proceedings against Virgin Media in the High Court in England alleging three counts of patent infringement.
The patents in question form part of Gemstar's extensive patent portfolio relating to interactive programme guide ("IPG") technology. Gemstar alleges that Virgin Media is infringing three of its European patents (EP0969662, EP1377049 and EP1613066).
The claims for Patent EP0969662, a Television Schedule System, include an electronic program guide comprising television program listings including title, telecast time and channel, a time and channel grid, a moveable cursor to highlight channels within the grid and a means to change the time and channel grid into a single channel guide of the highlighted program listing.
Patent EP1377049, User Interface for Television Schedule System, claims a system for allowing users to select favourite channels and storing these in electronic memory.
Patent EP1613066, Electronic Program Guide with Digital Storage, claims an interactive television program guide system for transferring recorded programs on user television equipment and seems to cover recording television programs and then transferring the recording to another medium.
The subject matter of the claims in all three patents would appear to cover the standard features on most set-top boxes today and therefore may not seem particularly novel or patentable. The priority dates for the first two patents do, however, date back to 1990 and the priority date for EP1613066 is in 1998.
The publication of the grant of EP1613066 took place in June 2007 and so a number of weeks of the 9-month period for filing a central opposition at the European Patent Office remain. It may be that the current infringement proceedings against Virgin Media provide an impetus for the commencement of opposition proceedings.
Gemstar have entered into licence agreements for their patented IPG technology with a number of other companies in the UK and the rest of the world, including the Sony Corporation, Mobi TV, Snapsteam and BSkyB.
Samir Armaly, Executive Vice President, Intellectual Property and Licensing at Gemstar is quoted as saying that the company had "worked diligently to license Virgin Media" for Gemstar's IPG technology but that "negotiations did not lead to a resolution".
A Virgin spokesperson countered Armaly's statement by responding:
"We're confident the courts will see Gemstar's action for what it really is: a piece of flagrant opportunism. We have been advised by our external counsel that the case is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously."
Earlier the year, Virgin Media brought legal proceedings against BskyB, which is also largely owned by Rupert Murdoch and chaired by his son James, for anticompetitive behaviour following the companies failing to reach an agreement as to Virgin's carriage of a number of BSkyB channels including Sky One.
Gemstar entered into a suite of merger agreements with Macrovision Corporation in December 2007. However, the merger transaction has not, as at the date of writing, completed. Macrovision is a California based company which designs technology to prevent viewers from watching and copying digital material without the correct authorisation and the deal has been described by various US commentators as a somewhat unusual partnering.
It will be interesting to monitor Gemstar's attitude to the proceedings if the merger goes ahead. This may provide a clue to the true character of these proceedings; a genuine attempt to protect IP or simply part of a larger more general dispute between Murdoch and Branson's media empires.