Software Patent of the Week: Burst of Obviousness

by on September 21, 2006 · 6 comments

Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. Before I get to this week’s patent, I wanted to note that the Public Patent Foundation has launched Software Patent Watch, a new blog that tracks the software patent problem. On Tuesday they announced that the patent office has broken the all-time record for software patents in a single year, and is on track to issue 40,000 patents by year’s end. That’s more than 100 software patents per day.

Luckily, none of those tens of thousands of patents produced any high-profile litigation this week, so I thought I’d cover one of the classics of recent software patent litigation, Microsoft’s (and now Apple’s) legal battle with Burst.com. Burst sued Microsoft back in 2002, claiming that Microsoft’s Windows Media software violates its patents. Microsoft settled the dispute last year, and Burst turned its legal guns on Apple in April, claiming that Apple stole the same “technology.”


Here is the newest of the four patents Burst is suing Apple over. It’s actually a little bit difficult to tell from the patent text how it relates to Burst’s dispute with Apple. The patent covers:

An improved video recorder/transceiver with expanded functionality (“VCR-ET”) including a capability for storing video and video programs in digital format, editing such programs, transferring such programs onto a hard copy magnetic media, and transmitting such programs to a remote location using a second VCR-ET. The increased functionality is realized through the use of analog to digital conversion, signal compression and intermediate storage in an integrated circuit, random access memory. The recorder/transmitter has capabilities to transmit and receive program information in either a compressed or decompressed format over fiber optic lines, conventional phone lines or microwaves.

Construed broadly, this seems to be a patent on all technology related to video transmission.

Fortunately, Burst hasn’t been shy about explaining how its patents applied to Microsoft’s (and now Apple’s) technology. The patent mentions transmitting video “in a burst transmission time period that is substantially shorter than a time period associated with real time viewing.” During the Microsoft dispute, Burst claimed that they invented “faster-than-real-time delivery” of media content, and that Microsoft copied their technology after Burst showed them a technology demo in the hopes that Microsoft would license Burst’s software. This is nonsense, as an excellent 2002 blog post explained:

Burst.com claimed to have a revolutionary way of delivering streaming content. Lossless. Faster than realtime.

Well, golly. You can deliver content losslessly and faster than real time via HTTP and FTP, too. Only Burst.com did this with a magical, proprietary protocol that required a magical, proprietary server that they would be happy to sell to you. The secret of the “secret sauce” that Burst.com CEO Richard Lang mentions in the feature is that there is no secret sauce.

Mr. Lang believes that Microsoft was out to get him. However, the reality is that Burst.com was, at best, a fly to Microsoft’s mountain.

Now Burst.com is suing Microsoft, a move apparently prompted by Windows Media 9′s “Instant On” feature. If you have a really fast conneciton and there are no bottlenecks along the way, it lets you see/hear media almost instantly. It works by putting a huge buffer at the client, and then filling that buffer as fast as possible so that buffering time is minimized.

It’s really hard to overstate how obvious this “invention” is. This isn’t just an obvious enhancement to video streaming. It’s the obvious way to design video player software if you expect your bandwidth to substantially exceed the rate required to play the video at full speed. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Patent office gave them a patent for it.

Update: Wow, I mangled this when I wrote it last night, accidentally putting part of my commentary in the blockquote. It should make a lot more sense now.

  • Mark Seecof

    In more than one SF story published decades ago, Robert A. Heinlein had characters transfer audio recordings quickly by “zip-squeal,” “60-to-one audio transmission.” Of course, Heinlein’s original vision of the technology was likely analog (and curiously, if you think about it, assumed his characters could employ a wire or radio channel having a bandwidth of 180 KHz or more, rather than the 3 KHz of a normal telephone line). There were buffers at both ends (such as variable-speed tape).

    However(!) Heinlein explicitly added a digital receiving buffer for high-speed audio in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (GP Putnam’s Sons, 1966). In that book, the narrator, Mannie Davis, asks his self-aware-computer friend, Mike, to allocate a digital memory buffer, “ten-to-the-eighth bits capacity” to receive and store time-compressed audio (along with other data). Mannie then sends Mike compressed audio through a high-bandwidth (and binaural, i.e., stereo) telephone channel, for later playback and analysis at normal speed. There’s no question that Heinlein knew about analog-to-digital conversion; in the book he discusses Mike’s vocoder and voder (codec) circuits. Indeed, Mannie builds a 20-channel codec for Mike so he can carry on more than one conversation at a time.

    Once Ampex invented practical video tape recording, transmitting time-compressed taped video in the same fashion as time-compressed taped audio would have been obvious. (It would also, obviously, have required a heck of a lot of bandwidth, but that’s merely a cost-constraint, not a conceptual gap.)

    Anyway, Heinlein didn’t claim to have invented time-compressed audio transmission. I don’t know who did, but it was already in use in the 1950′s for radio transmissions by spies, submarines, and so-forth, to frustrate attempts to locate the transmitter by radio direction-finding (by minimizing the time DF’ers would get to take bearings on the transmitted signal).

  • Mark Seecof

    In more than one SF story published decades ago, Robert A. Heinlein had characters transfer audio recordings quickly by “zip-squeal,” “60-to-one audio transmission.” Of course, Heinlein’s original vision of the technology was likely analog (and curiously, if you think about it, assumed his characters could employ a wire or radio channel having a bandwidth of 180 KHz or more, rather than the 3 KHz of a normal telephone line). There were buffers at both ends (such as variable-speed tape).

    However(!) Heinlein explicitly added a digital receiving buffer for high-speed audio in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (GP Putnam’s Sons, 1966). In that book, the narrator, Mannie Davis, asks his self-aware-computer friend, Mike, to allocate a digital memory buffer, “ten-to-the-eighth bits capacity” to receive and store time-compressed audio (along with other data). Mannie then sends Mike compressed audio through a high-bandwidth (and binaural, i.e., stereo) telephone channel, for later playback and analysis at normal speed. There’s no question that Heinlein knew about analog-to-digital conversion; in the book he discusses Mike’s vocoder and voder (codec) circuits. Indeed, Mannie builds a 20-channel codec for Mike so he can carry on more than one conversation at a time.

    Once Ampex invented practical video tape recording, transmitting time-compressed taped video in the same fashion as time-compressed taped audio would have been obvious. (It would also, obviously, have required a heck of a lot of bandwidth, but that’s merely a cost-constraint, not a conceptual gap.)

    Anyway, Heinlein didn’t claim to have invented time-compressed audio transmission. I don’t know who did, but it was already in use in the 1950′s for radio transmissions by spies, submarines, and so-forth, to frustrate attempts to locate the transmitter by radio direction-finding (by minimizing the time DF’ers would get to take bearings on the transmitted signal).

  • Steve R.

    See the “www.Inventions.org” article on Hedy Lamarr on using frequency hopping as a method of encryptinon. http://www.inventions.org/culture/female/lamarr.html
    Information Source: American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, Volume 12/Number 4
    ————————————————–
    “They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of “frequency hopping” was. Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control. Antheil’s contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved. He proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies could be coordinated the way he had coordinated the sixteen synchronized player pianos in his Ballet MÃ??Ã?©anique. The analogy was complete in his mind: By the time the two applied for a patent on a “Secret Communication System,” on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eighty-eight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano.

  • http://www2.blogger.com/profile/14380731108416527657 Steve R.

    See the “www.Inventions.org” article on Hedy Lamarr on using frequency hopping as a method of encryptinon. http://www.inventions.org/culture/female/lamarr
    Information Source: American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Spring 1997, Volume 12/Number 4
    ————————————————–
    “They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of “frequency hopping” was. Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control. Antheil’s contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved. He proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies could be coordinated the way he had coordinated the sixteen synchronized player pianos in his Ballet MÃ??Ã?©anique. The analogy was complete in his mind: By the time the two applied for a patent on a “Secret Communication System,” on June 10, 1941, the invention used slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to synchronize the frequency changes in transmitter and receiver, and it even called for exactly eighty-eight frequencies, the number of keys on a piano.

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