RealNetworks gets new patent

Last week RealNetworks announced it has received a patent on a way to stream multimedia content over the Internet — a development that could give the pioneering company an important competitive edge as the Internet turns into a broadcast medium.

In a highly competitive streaming media market that includes Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and other companies, RealNetworks has sought to exert and sustain its leadership in the technology since announcing the first streaming audio to market at NAB1995.

The patent could allow the company to demand royalty payments from those competitors or from media companies, the New York Times reported. Robert Glaser, the founder and chief executive of RealNetworks, told the Times that the award is a “foundation” patent, sought by his company since 1994.

Glaser described to the Times what he referred to as a “Kafkaesque struggle” to persuade the patent office that RealNetworks' “click to stream” invention was a novel one that deserved patent protection. The company, which now has 35 patents in the interactive multimedia field, went back and forth with the patent office for five years before it filed the 1999 patent in its current form.

Glaser said RealNetworks would probably not use the patent against its direct competitors. Many of the companies it competes with use patents as defensive protection, like the needles on porcupines, he said.

The patent, which is described as being for a “multimedia communications system and method for providing audio on demand to subscribers” (No. 6,985,932), describes the idea of permitting a PC user to play back audio, video and other information on a PC. RealNetworks executives said the technology was distinguished from other similar systems by the fact that it permitted “intelligent” streaming of data in potentially congested networks.

One of the challenges that will confront RealNetworks in enforcing the patent is an earlier one owned by Apple Computer, the Times reported.

Apple applied for a patent related to its QuickTime technology for streaming media in May 1994, before RealNetworks' first filing. The Apple patent, No. 5,561,670, for “method and apparatus for operating a multicast system on an unreliable network,” was issued in October 1996. It appears the patent office examiners did not consider it in their evaluation of the RealNetworks patent.

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