Will patent suit remove DTV off the air?
South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. has filed a patent infringement suit—related to the U.S. terrestrial DTV standard developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC)—against Polaroid Corp., owned by Petters Group Worldwide LLC and Westinghouse Digital Electronics LLC.
Samsung is the second company to take such an action, after Zenith Electronics LLC, which has a suit pending against the same parties.
As digital consumer electronics products become more prevalent in the U.S. market, a growing number now comes with a TV tuner capable of receiving terrestrial digital signals. The complaint filed by Samsung claimed, "Any receiver which is capable of receiving digital ATSC TV signals infringes Samsung's patents."
Legally speaking, the complaint suggests that any companies who "make, use, sell, offer to sell, and/or import" such digital consumer electronics products capable of receiving ATSC signals should worry about Samsung's patents. But they should be also aware of a host of patents pooled in the ATSC Patent Portfolio program put together by MPEG LA, a licensing administrator.
Besides Samsung, a patent holder in MPEG LA's ATSC Patent Portfolio License, others in the ATSC pool include Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, LG Electronics Inc., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd (Panasonic), Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Zenith.
Asked why Samsung and Zenith thus far are the only two members of the ATSC Patent Portfolio program to file such suits, Larry Horn, CEO of MPEG LA, said, "The fact that Samsung has filed suit against Polaroid and Westinghouse does not preclude others from deciding to bring suit."
Samsung is seeking, among other things, monetary damages and an injunction prohibiting Polaroid and Westinghouse from using ATSC patents in their products and from offering, marketing, or importing them.
Samsung's patents listed in the suit include "Ghost cancellation reference signal with Bessel chirps & PN sequences, and TV receiver using such signal" (U.S. Patent No. 6,184,938; U.S. Patent No. 6,480,239; U.S. Patent No. 6,937,292); and "Method and apparatus for displaying subchannel information in a digital TV receiver" (U.S. Patent No. 6,104,436).
According to the complaint, Samsung claims to be "the sole owner of the entire right, title and interest" in such patents.
Patent pool protection
Although the ATSC standard was developed in the 1990's, no patent pool existed until September 2007 when MPEG LA put together the ATSC Patent Portfolio License. Until then, each vendor would have had to negotiate individual licenses with different parties who all claim to own essential patents.
MPEG LA's program, meanwhile, offers an alternative, by "enabling users to acquire worldwide patent rights from multiple patent owners in a single transaction," said MPEG LA. Whether to take a license with individual patent owners or entering into a portfolio license offered by MPEG LA, however, remains a choice for each vendor.
While Samsung has filed the patent enforcement action in the U.S. District Court of Delaware against those companies, Zenith Electronics brought suit against the same parties more than a year ago in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Texas for infringement of its eight-level trellis-coded vestigial side band technology that became the terrestrial DTV transmission standard in the United States.
Whether entering into an ATSC Patent Portfolio license offered by MPEG LA is enough to protect a company from getting sued by others on the U.S. digital TV front remains unclear, though.
In December 2004, Rembrandt Technologies acquired a patent used in the ATSC digital-television transmission specification and eight others which the company claims pertaining to DOCSIS cable modem standard from communications-equipment maker Paradyne. Paradyne was once owned by AT&T, who was one of the original members of the Grand Alliance who developed the ATSC-based digital TV.
Over the last two years, Rembrandt has sued cable's big guns, including Charter, Cox, Cablevision, Comcast and Time Warner. Rembrandt alleges that by offering digital cable programs, those companies infringe a portfolio of Rembrandt's patents related to the reception and transmission of signals based on the U.S. digital HDTV standard.
Rembrandt is also suing ABC, CBS, NBC Universal, Fox and Sharp Electronics over the ATSC patent. Rembrandt is not a patent holder in MPEG LA's ATSC Patent Portfolio Licensee.
In an interview with EE Times on the subject of Rembrandt a year ago, Horn said that the ATSC license includes "essential patents" to propagate and use DTV signals.
"We used the term essential in a very strict sense," he said. "When we say 'essential patents,' we mean those truly essential to implementations of the standard and to the use of the ATSC products."
"All the bells and whistles ancillary to the standard, or certain favorable ways to implement it, are not necessarily considered "essential," he added.
- Junko Yoshida
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