Rovi sues Hulu over program guide patents

It’s been a bad week for Hulu. Just a few days after Fox (s NWS) announced it will put up a pay wall around what used to be free broadcast content on the streaming site, Hulu is now being hit by a patent infringement suit from interactive programing guide vendor Rovi. (s ROVI)

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Delaware Thursday, revolves around three patents related to online TV program guides and search products: US Patent #6,396,546, US Patent #7,103,906 and US Patent #7,769,775. The suit seeks unspecified damages (and attorney fees!) for the alleged infringement.

One could say Rovi aggressively defends its intellectual property. Or one could also say that Rovi typically uses the threat of litigation as a starting point of licensing discussions for its IP. That seems to be the case with Hulu: In its complaint, Rovi claims it met with the web video startup as early as August 2008 to initiate licensing discussion. Hulu passed, Rovi sued.

Sometimes the strategy works: Rovi sued Toshiba over three program guide patents late last year. Earlier this year, Toshiba not only agreed to a license, but will use Rovi’s TotalGuide interactive programming guide in its televisions.

Sometimes it doesn’t: A long-running patent infringement suit against Virgin Media (s vmed) ended in a bit of Pyrrhic victory, as Virgin was found to infringe, but the patents in question were ruled invalid.

In any case, Hulu isn’t the only online media company that Rovi has taken to court recently. In January, it sued Amazon (s AMZN), and Amazon’s IMDb property over five program guide patents.

We can probably expect more of these lawsuits, as Rovi claims more than 1,100 patents related to program guides, which it has licensed to a number of distributors and consumer electronics manufacturers such as Apple, (s AAPL) Cisco, (s CSCO) Comcast, (s CMCSA) DirecTV, (s DTV) Microsoft, (s MSFT) Samsung, Sony, (s SNE) Time Warner (s TWX) and Verizon. (s VZ)