Radio stations are once again hearing about the Mission Abstract Data patents, as a firm representing them has been seeking a royalty for the use of the patent for certain digital music storage and retrieval systems. We’ve written about that patent before. When we last wrote on the subject, the patent was subject to review by the Patent Office, which had raised issues appearing to question the underlying validity of that patent. Since then, the Patent Office reversed itself, finding that the patent (as clarified and narrowed by the holder) was in fact valid. But that determination was itself challenged by certain companies that have interests in digital music storage systems for radio stations and, in an order released last week, the Patent Office has once again suggested that there may be issues with the patent that could undermine its validity.
While this development appears promising for broadcasters concerned about the patent, broadcasters need to take this news with a grain of salt. The Patent Office letter is at best preliminary, and the patent owner can file comments addressing the concerns raised by the Patent Office in the next 60 days, and then the challengers to the patent can reply 60 days after that. As we have seen in the past, a preliminary indication from the Patent Office that the patent may not be valid does not always withstand scrutiny when the final evaluation is completed, after presentations from both sides are received. So what is a broadcaster to do?
We have urged stations to seek their own counsel on this issue from an attorney who knows patent law. We are not patent lawyers, and there is a significant amount of technical information in the patent law process that needs to be reviewed by anyone who gets this letter from representatives of the patent holder. As we suggested, broadcasters need to carefully evaluate these patent claims, determine if they in fact cover the way that the station is operating, and then make a determination on how to deal with the issues that are raised by the company’s representatives.
Broadcasters are not the first group to receive this kind of claim. In the Internet radio world, several patent claims have been brought against webcasting operators based on claimed patents that cover many functions that most operators thought were quite obvious. And claims can be brought against the users of digital equipment, as well as against their manufacturers. The business section of any major newspaper is full of stories of other significant patent disputes that rage in virtually every sector of the electronics industry – including last week’s ruling on patent issues in the smartphone industry. In many cases, the most valuable asset of many economically troubled technology and electronics companies are their patent portfolios – to be used for both offensive and defensive purposes. While that may not make broadcasters feel better, at least they know that they are not alone in facing these issues. They are serious, and must be carefully evaluated. Welcome to the digital world!