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SONICblue gains key video patent

Dec 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The company behind Replay personal video recorders said it has been granted a broad patent on its technology that allows users to choose programming to store for later viewing on the devices.
SONICblue’s U.S. patent could have substantial implications for the PVR category. The devices, also called digital video recorders, have won a small but rabid fan base that treasures the equipment’s ability to easily record and even anticipate users’ favorite TV shows. PVRs typically also allow users to pause live broadcasts, do instant replays and skip quickly through commercials.
The patent covers a portion of those capabilities, comprising 50 claims that center on using a program guide or other “user-specified criteria” to pick TV shows for a PVR to record, said Andy Wolfe, chief technology officer for SONICblue.
“At a technical level, it’s a little more precise,” Mr. Wolfe said. “It means going through the stuff you want to record and telling the machine what you want to record, then going through and finding what it has recorded for you and finding a spot on the disk to record it.”
Mr. Wolfe said SONICblue plans to use the patent as a bargaining chip while pursuing partnerships with consumer-electronics and TV set-top-box makers, rather than in lawsuits against competitors.
“The standard answer is either they need to license the patent from us or do something different from what the patent covers,” Mr. Wolfe said. “We can’t say that [competitors must license it]. We have not done an appropriate analysis to make that kind of statement. But we believe it’s a very strong patent, and anyone in the PVR space would be interested in it.”
Mr. Wolfe said it is the first of perhaps 30 patents on PVR and interactive TV technologies the company expects to receive in coming months.
SONICblue’s biggest competitor, TiVo, was cautious in its assessment of the patent’s impact and said it also owns key PVR patents, with more coming.
“It just came out, and we’re still looking at it,” said Matthew Zinn, TiVo’s VP, general counsel and chief privacy officer. “There will be other patents issued to other players in this space. No one is going to get all of them. Obviously, it would be foolish for companies like Replay and TiVo to spend all their time suing each other. If there are things that need to be worked out between companies, they’ll be worked out.”
A spokesman for Microsoft’s Ultimate TV, which includes PVR functionality, declined comment.
Replay and TiVo were the original PVR makers, but SONICblue eventually bought the struggling Replay. TiVo still holds a significant subscriber lead, with 230,000 by September to Replay’s 70,000, according to Cahners In-Stat Group.
The patent announcement caps a busy several weeks for Replay, which was sued in October by three major networks over its ReplayTV 4000. The suit claims the machine violates copyrights because it can skip commercials and swap recordings over the Internet. Despite the lawsuits, SONICblue began selling the device in late November.
In-Stat Group analyst Mike Paxton estimates about 1 million stand-alone PVR devices will be in the U.S. market by year-end. A far greater number can be found in devices such as EchoStar satellite TV receivers, Sony computers and Panasonic television sets.