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Rovi v. Comcast: Mixed Ruling in Ongoing Patent Infringement Suit

Reports Patent

Rovi Guides, Inc. v. Comcast Corp., No. 16-CV-9278 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), opinion hosted by Justia.

On September 30, 2019, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled to grant in part and deny in part a motion for summary judgment of noninfringement by Comcast Corp. (“Comcast”) against Rovi Guides, Inc. (“Rovi”), a subsidiary of TiVo Corporation (“TiVo”). The court also denied a related motion to strike materials filed by Rovi in opposition to summary judgment. In so ruling, the court allowed infringement claims related to an earlier iteration of Comcast’s search functionality to persist but granted Comcast’s summary judgment motion of noninfringement for its current search functionality. The ruling, which involves one of four remaining patent claims filed by Rovi, is the latest development in the ongoing patent litigation saga between Comcast and TiVo.

The patent in question, U.S. Patent No. 8,122,034 (“’034 patent”), describes search techniques that enable viewers to efficiently find television programming of interest by incrementally updating the list of suggested search results with each new character inputted by viewers into a search function. Rovi, which owns the ’034 patent, claimed that certain search features available on Comcast’s digital platforms infringe on the patent. Comcast, in its motion for summary judgment, focused on two limitations common to all of Rovi’s ’034 patent claims, arguing that its search lacked aspects of either limitation and therefore did not infringe any of Rovi’s ’034 patent claims.

Addressing the first limitation, Comcast argued that its search functionality does not adjust relevance values associated with content items that are retrieved in response to the number of characters entered by users. In the ’034 patent, when a user types "G," "Ga," or "Gam," Game of Thrones might be toward the top of the list of results because it’s popular and because the user has entered a prefix of a closely associated term. Once the user reaches “Game,” however, she has likely already been offered Game of Thrones and declined to select it. At that point, the relevance value of the term "Game" in relation to other, less popular content items might get a boost, affecting those items' placement relative to Game of Thrones.

Prior to January 2017 but after the expiration of its TiVo/Rovi licensing agreement, Comcast used a value called "Match Score Factor" that adjusted the search relevance of terms associated with retrieved content items based on the number of characters entered by the user. After January 2017, however, Comcast set the Match Score Factor to a constant value. Rovi’s argument, which the court allowed by denying Comcast’s motion to strike, claimed that Comcast’s use of the Match Score Factor—both before and after January 2017—adjusted search suggestions by character count, thereby infringing its patent. The court ruled in Comcast's favor on this point, saying that Rovi failed to establish an infringement claim for Comcast’s current version of the Match Score Factor by not elaborating on how it operated in substantially the same way as the method described in the ’034 patent. Comcast was therefore entitled to summary judgment of noninfringement of the ’034 patent with respect to the current version of its search functionality.

Addressing the second limitation, Comcast argued that its search does not sort terms into “subspace categories”—groupings of terms by television show, actor, and theme—with “relevance bias values”—values weighting the relevance of one subspace category relative to others for each search. Under the ’034 patent, terms associated with the show, Seinfeld, could be slotted into categories like title or episode ("Seinfeld"), actor ("Julia Louis-Dreyfus"), or theme ("Dark Humor"), but each category must have a relevance bias value. If the title subspace category has a greater relevance bias value than the thematic one does, for example, a search for "Dark" would more likely yield the film, Donnie Darko, over Seinfeld.

Rovi contended that items in Comcast’s search are categorized by entity type, which are substantially the same as subspace categories, and that each entity type has a relevance bias value. In response, Comcast first claimed that the “items” its search uses are substantially different than Rovi’s “terms,” then claimed that its search doesn’t assign relevance bias values because the weighting is constant for any given item. The court rejected both of Comcast’s claims, concluding that, because the ’034 patent did not foreclose the item-entity type arrangement found in Comcast’s search and because Comcast misconstrued how the ’034 patent described the relevance bias value, Comcast failed to show that no reasonable juror could construe the existing record to establish that Comcast’s search organized the items as described in the ’034 patent.

The Court thus granted summary judgment of noninfringement with respect to Rovi's claims that the current version of Comcast's search infringes the ’034 patent, and denied summary judgment of noninfringement with respect to Rovi's claims that the version of Comcast's search prior to January 2017 infringed the ’034 patent. Comcast, which recently reintroduced remote video recording features to its digital platforms, will continue to offer its search to users in its present form.