Video-Indexing Patents, Developed for Holocaust Archive, Head to Auction Block

March 11, 2010

The organization founded by Steven Spielberg that has collected and archived video testimonies from nearly 52,000 Holocaust survivors and liberators is preparing to auction off commercial rights to the patented technology it developed for indexing and searching vast libraries of video.

The Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which became part of the University of Southern California in 2006, is using a company called Ocean Tomo to sell the commercial rights to its 11 key patents. The patents were issued at different times and the earliest ones will expire about six years from now. The institute will retain rights for noncommercial uses for the indexing and searching technology, and will continue to allow others to use the technology for education and research.

The patent rights will be sold at a live auction in San Francisco on March 25.

"This is an experiment for us," said John Sweet, a licensing official with the university's innovation center.

The university had tried for several years to attract licensees by listing the patents on a Web site but didn't receive much interest. Then Ocean Tomo approached the university, and officials decided to give the auction a try. Ocean Tomo is credited with pioneering the idea of live auctions for intellectual property in 2006.

The institute has set a minimum bid of $750,000 for rights to all 11 patents but hopes to reap a significantly higher price from the sale, noting that this kind of technology could be of interest to search-engine, media, broadcast, software, and computer-hardware companies. "We don't want bottom fishers," said Mr. Sweet.

All proceeds will go back to the institute to further its own work in education and outreach about the Holocaust and other genocides.

The institute is offering exclusive rights to the patents for a single one-time payment, rather than with a royalty arrangement, in hopes of attracting a company that would commit resources to enriching the technology, without having to worry about returning revenues to the institute throughout the life of the patents.

Mr. Sweet said the institute believes many companies now use technologies covered by the patents.

While neither the institute nor its predecessor, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, had ever sought to enforce those patent rights, once the rights are in the hands of a company, that reticence is unlikely to continue.

By selling the rights for a one-time payment, the Shoah institute will be able to reap some financial benefits from the years of investment it made in developing the technologies, without finding itself in the potentially awkward position of negotiating or litigating with companies over rights to use its inventions.