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Court Tosses Patent Case Against Corbis, Getty

A United Kingdom judge ruled on Wednesday that stock photography companies Getty Images and Corbis didn't infringe a patent on selling digital media online.

He also revoked the patent involved, a move sure to lower the heart rates of digital content creators in Europe.

The ruling followed a May 25 decision by a Washington State federal court dismissing E-Data's similar patent infringement suit against Getty Images.

E-Data bought the patent in question, which was granted to inventor Charles Freeny in 1985. According to E-Data, the Freeny patent covers the downloading and recording of information, such as music, from a computer onto a tangible object, such as CDs, DVDs and MP3 players.

The company has inked high-profile licensing deals, including one in August 2004 with Apple Computer for its iTunes music downloading service

E-Data first sued Getty and Corbis, two digital stock photography providers that let users browse, license and download images online, in Europe in February 2004. It piled on the U.S. suit in May of that year.

Although the two suits were filed against the individual companies, they soon buddied up to present a united front against E-Data's claims. In London, the cases were joined for trial. E-Data's U.S. case against Corbis hasn't been resolved.

Getty spokeswoman Deb Trevino said of the U.K. ruling, "It's a validation of our entire business model -- and even more broadly the industry in which we're operating. This dismissal recognizes the fact that the business we're in of delivering imagery electronically through the Internet has nothing to do with a patent developed in the 1980s, before any of this even existed."

According to Wednesday's ruling, Getty prevailed because it convinced the judge to take literally two terms in the Freeny patent: "material object" and "point of sale location."

Getty and Corbis argued that they sold not material objects, but licenses to reproduce objects that resided elsewhere.

Regarding the point of sale issue, the judge cited a previous case which determined that the material object must be offered for sale at a particular location, and, specifically, did not include the hard drive of a computer. Because users of Getty's service download digital files onto their hard drives, it didn't infringe, he found.

E-Data argued that the download turned a PC into a "point of sale."

In the UK, what tripped up E-Data was the Freeny patent's description of the receptive device, called an "information manufacturing machine." The court found that a PC didn't match many aspects of the description.

The patent itself came in for a critique in the UK. Assistant Recorder Richard Arnold, the judge in the case, wrote: "The description is lengthy, repetitive and somewhat confusing. Matters are not helped by the employment of a number of rather similar pieces of invented pseudo-technical terminology."

In that decision, Arnold wrote that E-Data's construction of the claims of the patent "comes close to being a patent for selling information."

Corbis and Getty also asked the courts to rule on the validity of the patent. In the UK, the judge invalidated the patent, leaving E-Data's licensing push in the lurch. E-Data executives weren't available for comment.

While the Freeny patent expired in the United States in 2003 and was set to expire in the EU in 2005, both countries' laws allow companies to sue for back damages, and E-Data had planned to do so.

The IP holding company still has a U.S. case working against a roster of media heavyweights including The New York Times, Hallmark Cards, American Greetings and Amazon.com .