BitTorrent in patent dispute

BitTorrent Inc has been sued for patent infringement by a company named Tranz-Send Broadcasting Network. I usually suspect the presence of a patent troll when it seems impossible to find the website of the claimant in the patent dispute, and when most of the Google results for the company include the news of the suit, and several prayer and transcendental meditation sites.

The litigation is in the Northern District Court of California (refreshingly not in Texas), and involves U.S. patent 7,301,944 (at USPTO) which protects media file distribution with adaptive transmission protocols. The abstract reads:

“A server/client media file distribution system is provided in which the server system is adapted to receive transmission requests from clients, status information from a network, and protocol information from each client. The server, based upon this information, adaptively transmits a given media file stored therein to one or more clients using the optimal transmission speed and/or network protocol based on the network status information and protocol information. Additionally, the present invention provides a looping file arrangement in which a plurality of clients can receive the same media file on multiple network channels, without the need to provide multiple copies of the same media file for each request of that file.”

That seems generic enough.Perhaps reading the claims will help to elucidate precisely what this patent is supposed to cover. Claim 1 reads:

“1. A media distribution system, comprising: a media file database configured to store media files, wherein one or more of the media files have been compressed prior to storage in the media file database; a computing device configured to receive user requests for delivery of the one or more of the media files stored in the media file database, the computing device further configured to: identify average network throughput between computing device and the requesting users; and route the user requests for delivery of the requested one or more media files to a distribution server capable of servicing the user requests based upon at least the average network throughput; and a distribution server coupled to the media file database, the distribution server configured to simultaneously deliver a single copy of the requested one or more of the media files identified in the routed user requests to the requesting users in less-than-real-time, wherein the distribution server automatically adjusts delivery of the requested one or more media files to the requesting users based on current average network throughput between the distribution server and the requesting users.”

This is a more narrow claim. As far as I can see, what is claimed is the creation of a compression algorithm that also stores information about files in a database and which also identifies network load of transfer, and distributes the files adjusting resources to match the load and the number of requesting users.Further claims only add more detail to the first claim, and mostly deal with involvement of more servers as the load increases.

I have read all of the claims, and nothing seems to resemble what the Bittorrent protocol does. Bittorrent is a communications protocol that distributes file-sharing amongst users with an entire copy of the file (seeds), and/or amongst users with incomplete versions of the whole (peers). The information of who is sharing the files at any given time is distributed through a tracker file which allocates resources accordingly at the local level; all of the seeds and peers sharing a file form a network (swarm).  If a user wants to find a file, all he needs to do is to go to a search engine and type the name of say, a movie. If the film is being shared, there may be a torrent file that contains information of those who are sharing the file at the moment. All that is needed is for one person to initially have the file and upload the tracker to a torrent tracking site, for that reason this person will be seeding the copy. Once other users find it, they will start downloading the file, but at the same time, they will be sharing it with others in the swarm. Eventually, peers that complete the download and keep their Bittorrent client open will become seeds, the more seeds, the “healthier” a torrent is.

So, the court will have to rule if Bittorrent is at all like the claims in this patent. In my humble opinion, they are nothing alike.

The other interesting element of this case is that the patent was filed on April 16, 1999. This might be relevant, as Napster was released in June 1999, which could be considered the first peer-to-peer application. The 944 patent describes a distributed file sharing system, so the best way to bring it down would be to find prior art. Does anyone know of an adaptive file delivery system prior to April 1999? This alone could settle the case.

The insidious nature of software patents is that even if there is prior art, and even if the patent claim does not remotely describe the Bittorrent protocol, BitTorrent Inc will still have to spend a lot of money defending itself from the trolls. Software patents keep punishing innovators, not encouraging innovation.