Rich media firm could cash in on patents

Balthaser Online, a small web application design firm, said this week it has been granted a U.S. patent covering most forms of "rich media" over the Internet.

The patent -- U.S. Patent No. 7,000,180, granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on 14 February -- covers technologies including Flash, Flex, Java and XAML accessed via clients including desktops, mobile devices, gaming consoles and set-top boxes, according to the firm.

It covers "Methods, Systems and Processes for the Design and Creation of Rich-Media Applications via the Internet", according to USPTO documents.

The company's founder, chief executive and chairman Neil Balthaser, a former Macromedia vice president of strategy, argued the patent has a strong claim to cover most of the so-called "Web 2.0" technologies. These have found growing use recently, and have become the focus of heavy investment by companies such as Google, Yahoo, Sun, Microsoft and Adobe.

Balthaser filed the patent in 2001, and so claims to have significantly predated the broad use of rich media in Web applications, something necessary for the patent to be considered novel and nonobvious.

"This new addition to our patent portfolio is a pioneering patent and provides significant licensing opportunities for both Balthaser and our licensees," said Balthaser in a statement. "Balthaser will be able to provide licenses for almost any Rich-Media Internet Application across a broad range of devices and networks."

"The considerable value of the '180 patent in the rich media and Rich Internet Applications areas cannot be understated," stated the firm's patent attorney, Don Pelto of Preston, Gates and Ellis.

The patent covers all rich-media Internet application methods, systems and processes, including their design, creation and use over the Internet, according to Balthaser.

Rather than follow the lead of a company like Eolas, which has pursued Microsoft through the courts in a patent claim covering browser plug-ins, Balthaser said he is looking to sell the '180 patent to a large company with an established interest in rich media Internet applications.

Industry analysts Ovum said the patent could have a devastating impact on Internet innovation. "This has the potential to be a massively important patent that could significantly affect the evolution of the Internet," wrote Ovum analysts Gary Barnett and Bola Rotibi in a research note. "This is a defining market and the bedrock of future software applications."

Barnett and Rotibi said Balthaser's patent is one more illustration, if any were needed, of the risks of introducing a U.S.-style software patent regime in Europe. They pointed out the debate in Europe has tended to fudge the issue: "Balthaser's patent award, and the consequences for leading players, demonstrates both the good and bad of software patents, and gives us a good reason for careful deliberation before we follow the U.S.' lead," they wrote.

Florian Mueller, a leading campaigner against European software patents, said the fault lies with the patent system rather than any individual patent holder.

"No one can blame Mr. Balthaser for taking advantage of the patent system the way it is. This is just another piece of evidence for the fact that only a complete abolition of software patents would solve the problem," he told Techworld. "The logic of patent law is that every minor progress is patentable, and that doesn't work well for software."

The patent's abstract states that it covers "a host computer system, containing processes for creating rich-media applications, ... accessed from a remote user computer system via an Internet connection, and supplied with user account information and rich-media component specifications."

Among the other claims specified in the patent's abstract are the viewing or saving of the application on the host system, and monitoring of the available computer and network resources by the host system.

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