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Unicast Eyes Rivals for Patent Infringement

Rich media ad firm Unicast is taking steps to enforce its new patents, contacting several competitors about what it believes are infringing products.

In early December, the New York-based company was granted two patents relating to its Superstitial interstitial advertising delivery format. In the month following, the company has handed "cease and desist" letters to Enliven, Bluestreak, Eyeblaster and VIPcast, and said that it is aiming to have the companies remove their interstitial products from the market.

Spokespeople from Enliven and VIPcast did not return requests for comment by press time. Bluestreak referred all questions to its general counsel, who was not available at press time. Eyeblaster executive vice president Joe Apprendi confirmed that his firm has been in communication with Unicast for several weeks, but believes it is not infringing.

For its part, Unicast said it is optimistic about reaching an agreeable solution with the firms, adding that it remains in ongoing discussions with each.

Despite the rash of activity against its rivals, Unicast maintains that its objectives are motivated entirely out of a sense of commonweal. Indeed, the company said that by weeding out rivals, the industry would be better served.

"Our goal is to streamline the formats that Web sites and networks make available to advertisers, in order to make this medium capable of living up to its promise of being a real medium ... in terms of taking out format clutter," said Unicast spokesperson Allie Shaw. "Our goal is to truly get rid of what we believe will prevent advertisers from spending money on the Internet. We're trying to bring order, and with that comes controversy."

"There are too many choices and clutter, and not enough standardization. That prevents advertisers from spending money on the Internet," she added.

Indeed, the lack of standards in rich media online advertising creative has been seen by many as one of the format's chief drawbacks. Although rich media is widely believed to be more eye-catching and better at communicating brand messages than static ads, some industry insiders believe few advertisers will follow the example of AT&T Wireless.

The Redmond, Wash.-based wireless carrier recently ran a rich media ad campaign on several leading sites featuring the same creative elements. However, the actual ad appeared as a larger-than-banner ad on one, a full-screen "takeover" ad on another, and a "gateway" execution that appeared before any content on a third.

While critics contend the different ads might have each been effective, such a lack of standards in media formats typically represents added development costs for the advertiser -- costs that are rarely found in other mass media.

"Format clutter has propagated the continued control of online ad creative by digital agencies, not traditional agencies," Shaw said. "As traditional agencies come to the table, there's more of a push for consistency and standards, and there's more of an initiative for cross-media buying. [That] will directly impact the speed at which advertisers embrace funding this medium the same way they fund television."

But whether Unicast's approach will win it, or the medium, new favor among advertisers remains to be seen.

Additionally, the ad firm says it's not done with its legal efforts. After it's finished examining the ranks of companies specializing in rich media formats, Shaw said Unicast would consider sites and ad networks with proprietary rich media ad formats that it believes impinge on its patent.

"Our priority is to look at those companies who are not partners of ours, and who are not facilitating and propagating the sale of the Superstitial," Shaw said, adding that the company also was considering similar action in emerging media spaces, like interactive television.

"The patents don't just cover online advertising," she said. "If we make it very efficient for someone to buy on interactive television, as well as to buy on Sportsline.com and on CBS during a game, that's a pretty serious way to go."