Mission Abstract Data is asserting patent rights to automated radio programming systems – but its claims remain to be validated

Here’s a quick quiz for radio broadcasters: Mission Abstract Data. Ever heard of them? Does business as “DigiMedia”. Maybe that rings a bell.

You’ve probably never heard of them under either name. They don’t own a single radio station. Yet they might just become the most influential company in radio broadcasting this year.

That’s because Mission Abstract Data (MAD) is trying to enforce its rights in two patents granted in 1997. According to MAD, those patents are crucial to the automation of radio programming. So if you happen to be one of the many stations relying to any degree on program automation, you might be hearing from these folks sooner rather than later.

The patents in question are Numbers 5,629,867 and 5,809,246. They are very similar, with nearly identical descriptions of a system for “retrieval of music from a digital database”. They cover:

A digital radio broadcast station which includes a single on-line digital database having stored therein a plurality of at least several hundred (preferably at least 1800) different selections of music to be played and broadcast by the radio station. A processor system is provided for programming the operation of the digital radio broadcast station with a sequence of music selections, which are subsequently retrieved in order from the common digital database and played over the digital radio broadcast station. The single on-line digital database comprises a disk array storage, preferably a dual port RAID disk array. The digital radio broadcast station also includes a plurality of work station consoles for use by personnel responsible for operating the radio station such as disc jockeys and engineers. A bridge network such as a modem is also provided for connecting the radio station to a further digital database for music selections not stored in the common digital database. The processor system is provided with a connection to a telephone network, such that radio station callers can communicate with the radio station by a touch tone telephone, and is also provided with a connection to an interactive cable television network, such that cable television viewers can communicate with the radio station over the interactive cable television network.

The only real difference between the two is that one of the patents covers a “common on-line digital database” while the other covers a “single on-line digital database”. 

On March 1, 2011 (more than a decade after the patents were first applied for), MAD filed a patent infringement lawsuit against several large radio companies, including  CBS Radio, Cox Radio,  Cumulus, Entercom and Greater Media (basically most of the superlarge, national radio company other than Clear Channel) for their use of automated programming software across approximately 900 stations.  

MAD’s claim is really pretty simple: it asserts ownership of the two patents and claims a connection between those patents and most of the radio programming automation software in use today. The basis for the claimed connection consists of several trade publication stories describing the radio industry’s reliance on hard drive storage and database access. MAD seeks a permanent injunction, damages, costs and attorneys fees, as well as a post-judgment accounting of damages. Notably, MAD did not sue any software providers (which would seem a more direct, but also less lucrative, route to protecting whatever patent rights it might hold).

The radio companies’ answers thus far have been equally straightforward, adopting that age-old legal approach, “deny everything”. The radio companies have also counterclaimed by seeking a determination that no patent infringement has occurred and that MAD’s patents are invalid. 

In short, the whole thing boils down to two questions:

Does MAD have a valid patent at all (which entails a number of subsidiary questions, such as whether equivalent technologies existed at the time the patent was initially sought – if such alternatives did exists, MAD’s technology might not be “unique”, which could invalidate the patent); and 

Does the use of automated systems like Audiovault actually constitute a patent infringement?

This is, of course, an über-simplification of the legal issues in hand. (More detailed descriptions can be found in the archives of such publications as Radio World and Radio Business Report.)

While its initial lawsuit against the Really Big Radio Companies moves forward, MAD is ramping up Phase 2 of its plan for world radio domination. Several medium-sized radio broadcasters (including some Fletcher Heald clients) have been contacted by MAD with an offer to allow the broadcasters to “license” MAD’s supposedly patented system. (Wordsmith tip: The term “settle” is apparently not being used, presumably because no lawsuit has yet been filed or directly threatened).   MAD’s offer has in some (but not all) cases included a proposed one-time fee based on a combination of (a) the number of stations owned by the broadcaster, (b) the number of years the broadcaster has been operating those stations using allegedly infringing automated programming software, and (c) the company’s revenues.

What should you do if you receive such a letter? We’re not in the business of giving legal advice through CommLawBlog.com (and to the extent you might even think about relying on anything you read on our blog as legal advice, DON’T!).But, if you have been contacted by MAD or one of its representatives – and even if you haven’t been contacted but your radio programming operations are automated – you may want to think about contacting your legal counsel to determine your options. If you have been contacted by MAD, it would probably be a good idea to respond to the MAD person who contacted you, if only to open lines of communication that might delay the filing of a lawsuit. 

One other potentially useful chore: collecting any paperwork relating to your programming software and showing it to your attorney. It’s possible that your software provider might be required to indemnify you in the event that you are sued (or even if you merely incur additional costs by signing onto some licensing/settlement agreement with MAD).