The case of Gemstar-TV Guide against Virgin Media is scheduled to start in London this week. Legal proceedings were issued against British cable television provider Virgin Media back in January 2008 over alleged infringement of patents relating to interactive programme guides. The outcome of the case could have significant implications for electronic programme guides, which have been notoriously dominated by issues associated with patent protection.

Gemstar was once best known as the licensor of the VideoPlus+ mechanism that enabled video recorders to be set from short numeric codes published in printed programme schedules.

Having merged with TV Guide, the once powerful listings magazine publisher, Gemstar-TV Guide is now part of Macrovision Solutions Corporation, based in Santa Clara, California.

Popularly associated with copy protection mechanisms, Macrovision has over 4,000 issued patents or pending applications worldwide. It announced an agreement to acquire Gemstar-TV Guide at the end of 2007 for $2.8 billion. Macrovision recently said it would change its name to Rovi.

In its original complaint, Gemstar and its subsidiaries StarSight Telecast and United Video Properties alleged that Virgin Media companies infringe three European patents, 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.

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.

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

Sony recently licensed interactive programme guide technology and patents from Macrovision. It said the multiyear agreement would allow Sony to continue to use Macrovision IPG technology and patents, under the company’s Gemstar patent portfolio, for its products.

In April, NDS entered into a similar licence agreement with Macrovision to allow NDS to offer electronic programme guides to its pay-television platform operator customers in specified countries. Financial terms were not disclosed.

“We believe operators will benefit from having the option to license Gemstar’s EPG patents alongside NDS’ own leading technology and service offerings,” said Dr Abe Peled, the chairman and chief executive of NDS. “We are therefore pleased to join Gemstar’s patent licensing program to enhance our market offering for our customers’ benefit.”

NDS is part owned by News Corporation and supplies middleware and electronic programme guide software to satellite television companies in which News Corp is a major shareholder, including Sky in the United Kingdom.

Virgin Media is a competitor to Sky, with whom it has had a robust relationship. For both companies, the electronic programme guide represents the critical user interface to their respective platforms.

The design and functionality of such programme guides has been limited in part by patent issues, some of which appear to cover apparently obvious issues of information presentation.

Virgin Media has extended its agreement with SeaChange International to cover the continued use of the Liberate middleware that provides the presentation of its electronic programme guide until January 2011. The company is currently working on concepts for a new programme guide that could move away from the classic channel grid, with channels having their own zones, combining linear, on demand and broadband programming.

The outcome of the court case could determine whether Virgin Media has infringed any patent claims, or indeed the extent to which they are valid or enforceable, assuming that any settlement is not reached out of court.