For years -- decades actually -- DVR and set top box designers in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent around the world) have been hamstrung in their efforts to provide consumers with the simplest, most obvious form of an electronic program guide (EPG) -- a grid listing channels and times -- because of the infamous "Gemstar patents." All that is about to change, however, according to Richard Bullwinkle, an evangelist / spokesperson for Macrovision who I met at a recent consumer electronics press event in New York. Macrovision recently purchased Gemstar-TV Guide, and they say, designers and software developers will now be free to create their own EPGs, with the controversial patents available for licensing to anyone at reasonable prices.
To anyone unfamiliar with the Gemstar patent saga, this story will sound absolutely zany, but it's true. I can attest first hand to the difficulties of trying to create a program guide in the U.S., having spent about seven years working for a company (Gist) that attempted to create a competing EPG, and was thwarted every step of the way by the Gemstar patents. To make a very long story short, Gemstar simply wouldn't return phone calls or correspondence from anyone who asked to license their patents. And anyone who went ahead and created an EPG without their blessing was sued -- at least anyone with deep enough pockets for them to collect from. They sued Scientific Atlanta. They sued TiVo. They sued Echostar (Dish TV). Even Microsoft -- a company not easily intimidated -- was convinced to pay Gemstar roughly $40 million for the right to create their own EPG in Windows Media Center.
Now Macrovision -- the company famous for analog video copy protection -- says they will license the patents fairly and openly, with a catalog and price list. If the notion of a kinder, gentler Gemstar sounds vaguely familiar, it's because we've heard this talk before. After Henry Yuen, the founder and driving force of Gemstar was convinced to resign due to financial irregularities at the company, Gemstar said their policies would change. But they didn't. Now, however, with new owners, the shift appears to be real and sincere.
Of course, the only way to know will be for product designers to get on the phone and actually start negotiating for licenses for Gemstar's EPG patents. To some, the very notion of having to pay a license fee to present an onscreen program guide may seem outrageous, but that's a different story. The patents do exist (mostly from the acquisition of StarSight, an early EPG) and to date, no one has successfully had a court disqualify them -- even though one could argue that, for example, a train schedule or printed grid guide represents prior art.
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