Gunplay On Interactive Tv

The first shots have been fired in a battle to control an on-ramp to the Information Superhighway. Four companies, each seeking to become the dominant supplier of an electronic interactive television guide, have filed five patent lawsuits against one another since Oct. 15. And more are coming.

At stake: the billions of dollars viewers will pay for services that help them navigate interactive TV. The technology, now being tested in several markets, lets viewers select individual shows or programming categories from an on-screen menu and create a personal schedule for future viewing. "Our product tells you what you're watching and where you want to go," says Michael Faber, chairman of StarSight Telecast Inc., a seven-year-old venture in Fremont, Calif., that initiated the litigation frenzy.

StarSight, whose partners include Viacom International, Cox Communications, and Tribune, first sued rival Gemstar Development Corp., alleging infringement of patents that let consumers surf through 500 channels and view or record programs. StarSight, which says it spent $20 million developing its technology, also sued Tulsa-based United Video Satellite Group Inc. and its subsidiary Trakker Inc. for infringement after those companies sued StarSight.

MORE TO COME. Gemstar, based in Pasadena, Calif., countered with two suits on Nov. 15 and Nov. 17, charging StarSight with both patent infringement and antitrust violations. The disputes go to the heart of all the companies' businesses: the defining technology that enables consumers to store and recall electronic TV listings. Should Gemstar's patent prove legally enforceable, "then all electronic interactive TV guides infringe on it," says Chairman Henry C. Yuen.

The early suits, say experts, mark the start of a drawn-out turf war. "What you have are only the first of many battles to come over who will have the prevailing infrastructure on software that 250 million Americans will use," explains Steven D. Glazer, a New York intellectual-property lawyer. After the courtroom dust settles, though, an even tougher test awaits: wooing viewers.

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