Sony cannot patent inventions in the UK that remove the anonymity of the peer-to-peer (P2P) user experience and put social networking at the heart of file-sharing.
The Patent Office ruled last week that the inventions are not eligible for patents.
Sony filed two patent applications for complementary inventions. One describes a means of exchanging information between computers or other devices in a network. The other describes ways of using that information.
The application for the "system and method for reviewing received digital content" describes building a web community.
When a P2P user downloads a piece of content from another user's computer, be it a song or a game or a movie, he normally knows nothing about that user – or where that user obtained the content. Sony's proposal would change that experience.
Sony describes a method for attaching a user history to content when it is shared among computers or other devices. When one user downloads a song, he can see who had it last and what he thought about it.
The patent application explains: "For example, the user, Clark Kent, may give a classic jazz music file a rating of '7' and include the user comment 'like cool man'. Also, instead of using his true identity ('Clark Kent'), Clark uses an alias, 'Superman.'" Clark may also choose to supply his email address.
Unlike social networking websites, Sony's proposal does not rely upon a centralised server. The thinking is that an accumulated history of users of the digital content could add value to the digital content itself, without requiring the file to be available for download from only one location. A user may also receive a credit towards the purchase of music when a subsequent user of an exchanged music file plays the song.
"Over time," suggests the application, "if a particular user consistently recommends interesting content before other users, then they will emerge as a kind of expert recommender."
Other possibilities include your PC determining which song to play based on a favourite list of another user having a common interest in music. And the user history information could be sold to marketers.
Sony-BMG has embraced P2P before: it partnered with a British broadband-provider called Playlouder MSP last year to make its catalogue available on a P2P network in which subscribers can exchange music from participating record labels freely within the walled garden. A portion of the subscription fees compensates the rights holders.
Patent examiners initially objected that the inventions described computer programs and were not eligible for patent protection in the UK.
Sony's patent agent, Dr Jonathan DeVile, challenged this before Patent Office Hearing Officer Bruce Westerman. Dr DeVile said the examiners were wrong, that the inventions cannot be a program for a computer because, in operation, there are at least two computers involved, communicating over a network. Westerman disagreed.
"To be a participating member of the peer-to-peer community within which these inventions work, it would seem to me clear that each data processing device must contain all the functionality to act as a 'first user' and as a 'second user' or 'previous user'," wrote Westerman. "Therefore, in reality, each device has all of the software, whether or not all of it is in use at any one time."
The view of the patent examiners was upheld.
- The Hearing Officer's ruling (9 page/40KB PDF)
- Sony's application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, "Initializing relationships between devices in a network"
- Sony's application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, "System and method for reviewing received digital content"
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