Light Reading

Sling Media Opens the TiVo Playbook

Jeff Baumgartner
The Bauminator
Jeff Baumgartner

10:45 AM -- When the Slingbox came on the scene in 2004, I thought it was a great idea. It delivered TV Everywhere years before the term was coined by almost every pay-TV operator under the sun.

I also remember thinking it would only be a matter of time before someone, somewhere would try to sue the pants off Sling Media Inc. for retransmitting video signals.

Discovery Communications Inc. has complained about Sling, but has yet to file a formal lawsuit. Back in 2006, former HBO CTO Bob Zitter openly wondered if Sling's approach was on the legal up-and-up. Yet, through it all -- including its US$385 million acquisition by EchoStar in 2007 -- Sling is still standing, as a company and on legal grounds. (See HBO Exec: Sling Slags Copyrights and Why Is Sling Getting a Free Pass?)

But it was Sling that went on the offensive this week, targeting Belkin Corp. and Monsoon Multimedia Inc. in lawsuits filed in California claiming that they are infringing on five Sling patents:

  • No. 7,725,912 -- "Method for Implementing a Remote Display System with Transcoding";
  • No. 7,877,776 -- "Personal Media Broadcasting System";
  • No. 8,051,454 -- "Personal Media Broadcasting System with Output Buffer";
  • No. 8,060,909 -- "Personal Media Broadcasting System"; and,
  • No. 8,266,657 -- "Method for Effectively Implementing a Multi-Room Television System."

Belkin and Monsoon both make video place-shifting devices. Monsoon is complementing a retail strategy with a direct-to-MSO approach that lets the operators decide which channels are eligible for place-shifting and whether video streams can be sent beyond the customer's home network. That's not a bad idea, since cable operators tend to take programmer copyrights extremely seriously (some MSOs own or have stakes in programmers, after all). But I haven't seen any evidence that Monsoon's had success with this strategy. (See Monsoon Pitches MSO-Managed TV Place-Shifting.)

Still, this legal attack is an interesting play for Sling Media, considered a pioneer in video place-shifting.

Sling ultimately answers to Charlie Ergen, who, as we all know, recently got taken to the woodshed by TiVo Inc., a DVR pioneer that has successfully reaped millions from lawsuits centered on its powerful patent portfolio. (See Dish, EchoStar to Pay TiVo $500M to Settle Suit.)

Ergen, perhaps still smarting from the TiVo beatdown, is now trying the same thing on two competitors. If he's successful, will he stop there?

If not, would that make Motorola Mobility LLC (and soon, by M&A extension, Arris Group Inc.) a possible target? Moto's Televation product (Comcast Corp. markets it under the AnyPlay brand) is a video transcoding device that uses a CableCARD. It keeps video on the home network, but a firmware upgrade, I've been told, can enable the device to sling video outside of the home, too. Obtaining the rights to ship those streams outside the home network is likely the big hang-up.

If Sling wins its case against Belkin and Monsoon, it could push more pay-TV operators to pay tribute to Charlie Ergen and Sling -- either through a straight-up license or one that comes way of Sling's integration in Broadcom Corp.'s new video gateway SoCs. (See Broadcom Video Gateway SoC Gets 'SlingLoaded' and EchoStar Puts Sling Out To License.)

And the lawsuit route could create a new revenue stream for Sling, which has a cult-like fan base and a solid consumer brand, but has yet to take the world by storm. It's a strategy that has worked in TiVo's favor, anyway, so Sling might be onto something here.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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