Gemstar-TV Guide International has begun legal proceedings against cable television company Virgin Media, claiming infringement of patents related to electronic programme guides. The Los Angeles based company has issued legal proceedings in the English High Court but it may have met its match in Virgin.

Samir Armaly, responsible for intellectual property and licensing at Gemstar-TV Guide, said the company had sought to licence its patents to Virgin Media “but negotiations did not lead to a resolution”.

“While we would have preferred to reach a commercial solution with Virgin Media, we ultimately have a responsibility to our shareholders, licensees, and other stakeholders to protect the value of our intellectual property.”

Gemstar-TV Guide has a reputation for vigorously asserting its patent claims and has had some success in persuading third parties to licence its allegedly proprietary intellectual property.

Gemstar recently announced a patent licence agreement related to interactive programme guides with mobile video company MobiTV. The company also announced an agreement to integrate its interactive programme guide in Sony consumer electronics products.

However, some industry observers question the validity and value of the patent portfolio. Virgin Media seems less likely to be intimidated by the threat of litigation.

“We’re confident the courts will see Gemstar’s action for what it is: a piece of flagrant opportunism,” said a Virgin Media representative in response to the announcement from Gemstar. “We have been advised by our external counsel that the case is without merit and we will defend it vigorously.”

Gemstar-TV Guide is 41% owned by News Corporation but is in the process of being sold to Macrovision for $2.8 billion. News Corporation is also the majority shareholder in BSkyB which is involved in ongoing disputes with its cable competitor. The satellite broadcaster is understood to have previously licensed the right to use patents from its sister company.

In its complaint, Gemstar and its subsidiaries StarSight Telecast and United Video Properties allege that three of their European patents are infringed by Virgin Media: EP0969662, EP1377049 and EP1613066.

These patents, published in 2000, 2004 and 2006, respectively cover a television schedule system, user interface for a television schedule system, and electronic programme guide with digital storage.

While electronic programme guides may have been late in coming to the United States, digital television has been available in the United Kingdom since the late nineties, providing potential prior art.

The earliest of the Gemstar patents has a primary claim for a method of navigating listings of television programmes, displaying some of the titles on screen in a grid guide format and using a cursor to select a title in a single channel format with rows of sequential programme listings.

The primary claim of the second patent includes arranging the indicators for the channel listing in a user determined order.

The third patent covers the selection of a programme listing from an electronic programme guide, enabling it to be recorded and subsequently transferred to a secondary storage device.

In the view of informitv, based on experience of patents in this field, it seems unlikely that Gemstar will prevail in this case. The failure of litigation against Virgin Media could set a useful precedent for the rest of the industry.

Not least, it could be significant for the forthcoming Freesat service due to be launched later this year, backed by the BBC, which could become another substantial competitor to the satellite service from Sky.

Uncertainty over patent issues has inhibited innovation in interactive programme guides. Consumer electronics companies and platform operators have faced the threat of litigation over apparently obvious forms of presentation such as a channel schedule grid, which simply represents on screen information that has been presented in printed listings for decades.

The electronic or interactive programme guide has been seen as a key component of digital multichannel television. However, the value of interactive programme guides based on channel grid schedules could be diminishing, as search, personalisation and recommendation become increasingly important in a world of hundreds if not thousands of channels and millions of programmes available on demand.