After 8 months of deliberation, Justice Annabelle Bennett of the Federal Court of Australia has ruled in favour of IceTV in its dispute with Channel Nine.
I’m no longer employed by IceTV, so the following is my personal account only.
In short, Nine claimed that IceTV’s electronic program guide infringed Nine’s copyright in their schedule. The full judgment has now been published here.
This saga dates back to about 1988 when I was thinking about how to solve the biggest technical challenge of modern times – how to program a VCR to record the right program.
My idea was to bring up a TV guide on the TV screen and allow the user to click on the shows they want to record. This was basically what is now known as an EPG or electronic program guide. My invention would then set up the right time and channel settings on the VCR to record that particular show.
Sadly, I was a bit ahead of my time – the idea of clicking on an EPG seems obvious now but at that time the internet was virtually unknown.
Over the years I built several prototypes of this and each got fancier than the one before but I could not raise enough capital to get anything into large scale production.
About 10 years ago when digital TV was announced, I could see the opportunity to build the electronic programming guide into a digital set-top box which everyone would eventually buy as digital TV took over from analog. I had a strong belief that this was the better mousetrap I’d been looking for and thought “It’s time to piss or get off the pot”.
One of the problems was compiling the data for the EPG. Magazines like TV Week were available but of course you can’t just copy that into an electronic form; that would be a clear breach of copyright. I approached the companies that provided the information to publishers like TV week but they said they can’t sell me the information I wanted because the TV networks did not allow it.
So I realised the only way to obtain the EPG data would be to compile the information ourselves, from scratch, without copying anyone’s work.
So, in consultation with some of Australia’s top copyright lawyers, I designed a process that would create the EPG without breaching copyright. The basic steps were to watch TV for a few weeks and write down what’s on each channel every hour of the day. This was what the Judge referred to in her judgment as “the torture period”. That formed a database which was the starting point, and from there daily updates kept the EPG current. The descriptions of the shows are written from scratch by writers we employed for the purpose.
IceTV was founded in 2005 and started delivering the “IceGuide” EPG over the Internet to media centre computers and set-top-boxes.
The TV networks didn’t like the new kid on the block. In 2005 Channel 7 threatened to sue for copyright breach, but after investigating the process they backed off. But in 2006 Nine took IceTV to the Federal court, again claiming copyright breach. IceTV explained their process to the Court and after 8 months of deliberation the Judge ruled in IceTV’s favour.
This does not mean that Nine’s TV guide is not copyright. It does not open the floodgates for every man and his dog to copy TV guides or download an online TV guide into their media centre.
What it does mean is that the Court has now confirmed what I have always maintained – that Ice’s EPG is legal.
With that question mark now erased, I hope more companies will make IceTV’s EPG available through their products. For example Microsoft Vista comes with TV recording capability but no EPG. In the USA and other countries Microsoft include the EPG with Vista.
The good news is that that my dream of nearly 20 years has been vindicated. The bad news is that largely due to the legal costs of defending the case against Nine, I was laid off by IceTV last October. The really really bad news is that right now I’m also being sued by IceTV – more about that another time.