Saturday, December 4, 2010

Real Victories Are Won In The Marketplace, Not In The Courtroom

This may sound odd coming from a lawyer, but courtroom victories often have limited value.  In fact, winning legal battles can sometimes do more harm than good.

 In 1999, TiVo invented the DVR, and registered patents to protect its novel ideas.  Initially, TiVo was so successful in bringing its product to market, that the word "TiVo" actually became a verb (a good indicator of massive market acceptance).  If someone said, "I'm going to TiVo that program," you knew that they were digitally recording it so they could watch it later.  By January of 2007, TiVo had about 4.5 million subscribers -- millions of households that had TiVo boxes attached to their television sets, ready to receive all types of digital programming.

Now, only 4 years later, Apple and Sony and Google and Hulu and Roku and Netflix and several other companies are all fighting to be the leader in bringing digital programming to the world's TV's.  Certainly, TiVo is still in that race, but it is struggling to keep up.  TiVo was several years ahead of everyone else and now, when the stakes are becoming meaningful, TiVo is trying to remain relevant.  How did it lose such a huge head start?  

In its most recent quarter, TiVo's revenues are down to $41.3 million, with a net loss of $20.6 million.  It now has about 2.2 million subscribers -- less than half of what it had only 4 years ago and the number is still falling.  In the meantime, Netflix (which started around the same time as TiVo) has close to 17 million subscribers and continues to grow. What happened?

TiVo apparently decided early on that its patents were its most valuable asset - more valuable than a direct relationship with consumers.  This was a critical strategic decision that probably made perfect sense at the time.  TiVo recognized that cable and satellite companies were in the best position to sell or rent DVR's to consumers, so it began licensing its intellectual property to those companies.  But in 2001, Echostar decided it wasn't going to pay a royalty to TiVo.  In January of 2004, TiVo sued Echostar (and its now-former affiliate, Dish Network), and almost 7 years later, the litigation continues.  

And the most ironic (or perhaps saddest) part is that TiVo is winning!   TiVo has prevailed at virtually every stage of the litigation, but Echostar refuses to give up.  Instead, Echostar appeals and raises new issues and makes minor modifications and continues to fight, while all the while the clock is ticking on TiVo's patent rights.  (Echostar did pay TiVo about $100 million at one point in the litigation, but that money is being depleted by operating losses.  With that said, TiVo is not in financial trouble; it has plenty of cash for the time being.)

And while TiVo has enjoyed a lot of legal victories, the fights have not been easy or inexpensive.  In 2009, TiVo filed another patent infringement case against AT&T, and that lawsuit caused Microsoft to file its own infringement action against TiVo!  Then, earlier this year, a portion of the TiVo patents was potentially weakened by rulings in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.     

If you had a company that lost $20 million in its last quarter, would you want to be fighting simultaneous legal battles against Echostar and Dish Network and AT&T and Microsoft?  And what impact do you think that would have on your ability to compete effectively against Apple and Sony and Google and Netflix in bringing digital programming to the living rooms of the world?

Just to be clear, my purpose here is not to criticize Tom Rogers and his team.  I understand the importance of protecting intellectual property. (I counsel clients on that topic almost every day.)  Instead, I am pointing out the potential cost to a business when it focuses its resources on winning legal battles.  And I don't just mean its financial resources, but also its time, energy, human resources and the attention of senior management.

Echostar and Dish Network will probably be writing a big check to TiVo some day.  It might be as much as a billion dollars -- who knows?  And TiVo will then have a very healthy balance sheet and rightfully claim victory.   But where will its business be by that time?  If TiVo had viewed itself as a leader in consumer empowerment, and put more of its energy into further innovation of the consumer experience, it might still be leading Netflix, Apple and Google in the digital media business.  But that's not where it finds itself today.

A company's early strategic decisions are vitally important, and now more than ever, it is critical to focus on satisfying your customers.  Netflix decided early on that it was in the business of giving consumers the media experience that they want.  Apple is in the business of giving consumers experiences they don't even know they want until they get them!  Google is in the business of giving consumers access to all the information in the world.  

On the other hand, TiVo made that early decision (before Tom Rogers ever took over) to focus on the value of its intellectual property.  It now appears to be primarily in the business of protecting 10 year old technology that is becoming less relevant every day.  Given the choice, that's not a business I would choose to be in.  I don't think there is much of a future in it, no matter how many legal battles you win.

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