A patent assigned on Tuesday to William H Gates III, the richest man in the world, gives the rights over a system for electronically distributing art around buildings. US patent number 6,670,934 describes a hierarchical representation of spaces within an environment, in which each space can be further subdivided into subspaces.
It’s a system that is likely to be a must-have in a 66,000 square foot house such as the one Bill Gates had built for himself in Medina, a wealthy enclave near Seattle, in the late 1990s. With miles of fibre optic cable linking servers to lighting, music, and climate controls throughout the complex, the ability to control which electronic picture hangs above the 24-seat formal dining table should not be overlooked.
The art distribution system, as it is known, allows a user to create play lists of images. These images can then be displayed according to the running order, on displays such as TFT monitors in a particular space -- say a house -- and within all subspaces -- for instance rooms -- of that larger space.
An important aspect of the patent application is the ability for a user to control the system from devices distributed around the building.
The system is likely to find applications outside the Gates mansion: in large offices for instance. Bill Gates is known to be an avid collector of art. In 1998 he paid what was believed to be the highest price ever for an American painting, when he bought Lost on the Grand Banks (1898), one of the masterworks of the American artist Winslow Homer, for $36m (£20m). He has bought many more pieces of important original art before and since.
But Gates' collection of digital rights to artworks is likely to be more valuable by orders of magnitude. In addition to re-positioning Microsoft over the past half-decade or so as media company, in 1989 Gates founded Corbis to buy and license the digital rights to images -- including those from many great art collections. Corbis now owns the digital rights to many tens of millions of images.