September 23, 2003 6:00 PM PDT

Patent holder unplugs porn network

A holding company that has a stack of streaming media patents briefly shut down a network of pornography Web sites over the weekend in an ominous sign for mainstream providers of streaming Web content.

The company, Acacia Research, on Friday said it had used a court injunction to persuade a Web hosting provider to unplug the Go Entertainment network of 42 "adult entertainment" sites.

Acacia said Monday that the network had signed a patent licensing agreement and that the sites were back in operation by Saturday night.

The Go Entertainment license is the 41st for Acacia, which has assembled what many call a streaming media patent portfolio that is easier licensed than fought in court. The patents collectively cover the ubiquitous system of compressing and transferring streaming media files over the Internet--and perhaps over other networks like cable as well.

Acacia claims to be in license negotiations with some of the Web's largest mainstream content providers, in addition to a sizable stable of porn sites, but the company would not disclose their names.

Mainstream sites that have already bowed before the Acacia patent include Radio Free Virgin, the online music division of Virgin Megastores.

Acacia says it had Go Entertainment shut down only as a last resort. The porn company did not respond to letters from Acacia or show up for its court date, according to Acacia. The patent holder won an injunction against the porn network from the District Court for the Central District of California, which the network also ignored, Acacia said. Only after prevailing on Go Entertainment's Web hosting company to shutter the sites did Acacia succeed in getting the network's attention and license agreement.

Go Entertainment did not respond to an interview request.

Acacia's streaming patents date back to early years of the World Wide Web, 1991, and the company claims that they cover a very broad swath of streaming media technology.

"All the methods we have looked at for streaming audio and video over the Internet are covered by our patents," said Rob Berman, senior vice president and general counsel for the company. "While certain components existed prior to 1991, our inventors were the first guys to put all the components together to make the process known as video streaming and video on demand."

Acacia is one of several obscure patent holders that are alarming Web companies and standards organizations with courtroom victories. Most prominently, a one-man company called Eolas that's affiliated with the University of California won a historic $521 million patent infringement suit against Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser.

Acacia is currently in negotiation with "all the major sites that provide audio and video streaming on the Internet," Berman said. The company has targeted the porn sites in the courts, because those sites have ignored its licensing demands, while mainstream Web companies have come to the negotiating table, he said.

While Berman stressed that the company's licensing campaign was in no way targeting the pornography industry specifically, he did allow that it was a lucrative place to run a patent licensing business.

"We have a lot of license agreements," Berman said. "This is about cable companies and music sites and movie sites and companies that provide e-learning via the Internet. But the adult sites happen to be a $3 billion to $5 billion industry."

Acacia's patents may date back to 1991, but its acquisitions of them are more recent, and the licensing program itself is only six months old. Armed with five U.S. and 17 international patents, Acacia originally sued 39 sites. That number is down to 16, with the rest having taken out licenses.


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