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A patent has been granted to a relatively unknown California Web-design firm for an invention its creator says covers the design and creation of most rich-media applications used over the Internet. The patent holder, Balthaser Online Inc., says it could license nearly any rich-media Internet application across a broad range of devices and networks.
Potentially tens of thousands of businesses--not only software makers employing its business processes, but companies offering rich media on their Web sites--could be subject to licensing fees when they use rich-media technology over the Internet.
The patent--issued on Valentine's Day--covers all rich-media technology implementations, including Flash, Flex, Java, Ajax, and XAML, when the rich-media application is accessed on any device over the Internet, including desktops, mobile devices, set-top boxes, and video game consoles, says inventor Neil Balthaser, CEO of Balthaser Online, which he owns with his father Ken. "You can consider it a pioneering or umbrella patent. The broader claim is one that basically says that if you got a rich Internet application, it is covered by this patent."
Rich media is a broad range of interactive digital media that displays dynamic motion, exploiting enhanced sensory traits such as video, audio, and animation.
"It's kind of unbelievable that [the patent] has such a wide-ranging use because it covers so many technologies," says Bola Rotibi, a senior analyst at Ovum, an IT advisory firm in London. If the patent is enforced broadly, she says, "Anybody who does anything with rich applications will have to pay royalties to the company."
That isn't lost on Balthaser and its patent lawyer, Don Pelto of Preston, Gates, and Ellis. "The considerable value of the 180 patent in the rich media and rich Internet applications areas cannot be understated," Pelto said in a statement.
Neil Balthaser, a former VP of strategy for Macromedia, the developer of the Flash rich-media development environment and player, now owned by Adobe, says he will most likely sell the patent rather than enforce it himself. He says he's discussing the sale of the patent to "top-tier players. I don't want to name them, but they're fairly obvious, the guys who are investing a lot of money in this rich Internet applications field. They got a lot invested, or they're going to be investing a lot. Any one of those companies would definitely benefit by controlling a patent like this, both defensively and potentially offensively, and the ability to sublicense it and make some return on their investment."
Rotibi identified Microsoft, Adobe, Google, and Yahoo as having made significant investments in rich Internet and interactive technology. These companies, she says, bet that rich Internet media, along with handheld device proliferation and embedded technology, is the gateway to a market that sees a convergence between consumer, workplace, and appliance interactions. "This is a defining market--not unlike the effect the PC had for Microsoft-- and the bedrock of future software applications," she says.
Balthaser also said he might talk to what he calls third-string companies, such as retailers that have invested heavily in online business. "They're making a huge amount of money online and are going to be pouring even more money into their online sales," he says. "A company like that can very much benefit from having a leadership position as they transform their site into a set of rich Internet applications by having a patent."
Balthaser says he began to develop rich-media application processes while developing Web sites for large corporate clients in the late 1990s using Macromedia Flash 3. "My mom saw me struggling and one day said, 'Why don't you figure out a way to bottle up that Balthaser magic and let people purchase the bottle and do it themselves?' It was one of those whacks on the side of the head. ... I started to work on an early prototype."
The patent, No. 7,000,180 or 180 for short, is entitled Methods, Systems, And Processes For The Design And Creation Of Rich-Media Applications Via The Internet. It contains 83 claims that encompass a wide range of rich-media Net application methods, systems, and processes.
How broad is the patent? Here's what the patent abstract says it covers: A host computer, containing processes for creating rich-media applications, is accessed from a remote user computer system via an Internet connection. User account information and rich-media component specifications are uploaded over the Internet for a specific user account. Rich-media applications are created, deleted, or modified in a user account, with rich-media components added to, modified in, or deleted from the rich-media application based on information contained in a user request. After creation, the rich-media application is viewed or saved on the host computer system, or downloaded to the user computer system over the Internet.
Because he began developing the methods and processes more than a half decade ago, he believes he can prove his invention is novel and nonobvious, two requirements to get a patent, and can fend off any patent challenges from potential licensees who might contend the invention is neither new nor obscure. "Are we ready to defend our patent?" Balthaser asks. "Absolutely. We're ready to defend it vigorously if we have to. But [litigation is] not the approach we're taking in terms of licensing."