WisBusiness: Sonic Foundry branches into courtroom broadcasting

By Brian E. Clark

The trial of a Disney executive in a small Delaware courtroom is giving Madison-based Sonic Foundry a boost in the legal world for its Mediasite technology.

"And we weren’t even looking for this, they sought us out," said Rimas Buinevicius, Sonic’s CEO.

"The majority of our clients are in education, but this is an area with promise because we can stream rich media — synchronized audio, video and graphics — all things that are important for courtroom and legal proceedings."

The Disney trial — which challenges the $140 million severance package awarded to former Disney president Michael Ovitz — began Oct. 20 and is expected to wrap up this month.

Ovitz was only with the company for 14 months and shareholders objected to the lucrative deal. The suit, which charges that the Disney board failed in its fiscal responsibilities, was filed in 1997 and took seven years to make it to trial.

Because Disney is incorporated in the state of Delaware, the case landed in a courtroom in the burg of Georgetown (pop. 4,751) that seats only 50 people. Because of the intense interest in the case, there was no way for the judge to accommodate all the media and lawyers.

In stepped Courtroom Connect, a New-York-based company that provides Internet technology infrastructure for litigation proceedings, including complex depositions and trials throughout the United States.

Courtroom Connect bought 10 Mediasite units along with backhosting from a company called BxVideo to create what it calls the Virtual Law Viewer to stream the trial to reporters and lawyers around the country.

"There would have been no way on earth for us to handle the crush of people interested in this case without Courtroom Connect," said Mary Ellen Greenly, assistant to Chancellor William Chandler, the judge handling the trial.

"We only have one hotel and one sit-down restaurant here," she added.

A mobile Mediasite unit from Sonic Foundry costs $25,000, while a rack unit costs $20,000, company officials said.

The company sold 302 units this year, up from 86 last year – a nearly four-fold increase. About 55 percent of its sales were to higher education institutions, 35 percent to businesses and the remainder to government. WisBusiness.com and WisPolitics.com have used Mediasite technology to webcast political events and business forums

The Disney trial is the first time Courtroom Connect has been asked to provide a rich media stream to journalists and the public.

Michelle Beaudry, a spokeswoman for Courtroom Connect, said her company chose Sonic Foundry because Mediasite’s technology makes it easy to synchronize viewing documents and graphics in separate windows along with video from witnesses and attorneys.

"We’ve worked with them on other matters and they are our preferred technology for video streaming," she said, noting that as many as 50 news organizations and businesses are tapping into the trial via Courtroom Connect.

They have to pay a fee to see it, but Delaware residents can view the proceedings for free – with a four-hour delay.

By mirroring the courtroom experience remotely, Courtroom Connect President Louis Goldberg said Sonic Foundry and BxVideo technology allows attorneys in satellite offices to monitor the proceedings without the time, costs and hassles of traveling to the courthouse.

He predicted his company’s Virtual Law Viewer will become "increasingly ubiquitous" in courtrooms around the nation. To date, it has been used mostly on the East and West coasts.

Sonic Foundry’s Buinevicius said people once thought of streaming and video feeds in terms of racy Victoria Secrets fashion shows.

"Now, though it’s much more practical for other things, like education and even trials," he said.

"For us, graphics are the most important thing, with documents, power points and DNA samples all effectively converged with the audio and video."

Buinevicius said Mediasite has "obliterated" the economy of scale for use in the classroom and the system is now used by many major universities, including the University of Wisconsin.

"Lectures on-line used to cost from $5,000 to $30,000 to produce," he said. "Mediasite wipes out production costs. You can now instantly capture and send out.

"Streaming is an efficient and cost-effective way to deliver off Internet," he said.

Buinevicius called Mediasite — which came out in 2001 and is now in its fourth iteration — as simple to use as a tape recorder.

"It has the potential to change the world of business, education, medicine, government and now law," he said.

Mediasite also offers a quick return on investment, he said, though it is still sometimes wrongly compared to a $100 Web camera.

"Those things are just toys, though," he scoffed.

With the Disney trial, Courtroom Connect is sending out a Webcast camera feed with audio, graphics and on-demand viewing via the Internet, he said.

Buinevicius said Mediasite has the potential to change the ways that lawyers work and eliminate the need for some travel.

"If you can watch the proceedings in San Francisco or L.A., and see the exhibits up close and then feed questions to the legal team via Blackberries back in Delaware, you don’t need to actually be there," he said.

Though the Disney trial is producing headlines, Buinevicius said his company’s focus remains on schools, colleges and continuing education programs.

"Adult education is the fastest growing segment of the market," he said.

"With our system, people can view classes at their leisure," he said. "And they are not subject to the schedule of a teacher.

"It’s customer-based and provides and audit trail so you know that a person has actually watched," he said.