In the Much-Ado-About-Nothing Dept.: Verizon Communications last year filed a patent application, first reported by FierceCable, for a system that would let set-tops with cameras and microphones detect which viewers were in the room -- and what they were saying or doing -- to serve targeted ads on TV.
The telco's application is salted with some genuinely creepy examples. For example, Verizon said such a system could use "one or more terms associated with cuddling (e.g., the terms 'romance,' 'love,' 'cuddle,' 'snuggle,' etc.) to search for and/or select a commercial associated with cuddling (e.g., a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie, etc.)."
But what much of the ensuing media coverage -- including a segment on NBC Nightly News and a report by CBS's D.C. affiliate -- didn't tell you was that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office rejected the application as "unpatentable."
In fact, the USPTO rejected the application on Nov. 26. That was three days before it published the application.
That's because, according to the agency's initial review, somebody already owns a patent on the concept: U.S. Patent No. 7,865,916, "Audience determination for monetizing displayable content," was granted in January 2011. The USPTO determined that the application for that patent essentially covered the same claims, including detecting an "ambient action" by a user and then serving an ad based on that.
The '916 patent lists five inventors and intellectual property law firm Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz LLP as the agent.
The USPTO's initial rejection of Verizon's "eavesdropping" set-top application is "non-final," meaning it is undergoing additional review. Given the brouhaha the original filing generated, Verizon may not fight very hard to win this.
For the record, in responding to media reports about the application, Verizon director of digital policy communications Libby Jacobson wrote in a blog post earlier this month that "as most folks know, a patent application is very different from a product or service or device actually coming to market any time soon." She added, "Just as we appreciate effort in innovative ideas, Verizon also prizes its well-established track record of respecting its customers’ privacy and protecting their personal information."
Footnote: The lead inventor listed on Verizon's creep-tastic patent application is one Brian Roberts. Not the Comcast honcho -- this guy, who is currently director of user experience design at Verizon and Redbox Digital Entertainment Services LCC.
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