San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 1993.

Key Patent To Shake Multimedia Industry

John Eckhouse, Chronicle Staff Writer

Shock waves will reverberate through the multimedia industry this week when a software publisher reveals that it has patented technology used by virtually every competitor.

Compton's NewMedia has been awarded a patent for developing a computerized way to retrieve text, photo, audio, animation and video information from multimedia databases. The company believes virtually all interactive programs sold on CD- ROM discs violate its patent.

Although granted the patent August 31, the Carlsbad (San Diego County) company has managed to keep it a secret. Compton's plans to publicly announce it tomorrow at Comdex, the computer industry trade show in Las Vegas attended by executives of virtually every hardware and software company.

Attorneys who have seen some of the supporting documents say the patent will startle the industry because of its unusual breadth. ''The most likely reaction is going to be disbelief -- 'How could anyone patent something like that?' '' said Ron Star, a lawyer at Howard, Rice, Nemerovski in San Francisco. ''That will be followed by denial -- 'it can't be patented!' Then anger -- 'how could someone be so arrogant to try and monopolize the industry!' ''

Reached at his office before departing for Las Vegas, Compton's chief executive Stanley Frank insisted his company does not intend to use the patent to dominate the industry. ''We don't want to be restrictive, preventive or punitive,'' he said. ''We want to continue to help expand this industry that we have pioneered.''

One of the first companies to experiment with interactive multimedia programs, Compton's NewMedia now is the industry's largest company. It has published 40 CD-ROM titles of its own and distributes 120 other programs from 22 software publishers. Its sales of about $ 30 million last year are expected to double this year.

Compton's will dangle both a carrot and a stick at tomorrow's announcement. The carrot: offering to license its patent to companies who agree to either buy Compton's software development tools, jointly develop software with Compton's, give it the right to distribute their products or pay a royalty based on sales of their products. The stick: legal action. Compton's lawyers believe the company has an airtight patent. ''Everything that is now multimedia and computer-based utilizes this invention,'' Frank said.

The patent could be as far-reaching as the seminal video-game patent controlled by Magnavox. Though hardly a big name in video games, the company owned a basic patent that described the technology used to show movement in video games and to make the display screen scroll. ''In the 1970s and '80s they got most everyone to license the patent, including, as I recall, Atari, Nintendo and Sega,'' said Patty Thayer, a patent attorney with the Howard, Rice law firm. ''Compton's is taking the position that it believes this patent to be that broad.''

Instead of describing specific ways of searching for material, the patent that was granted to Compton's seems to cover only the general function -- retrieving multimedia data in a variety of ways. The patent describes the invention as covering a ''multimedia search system using a plurality of entry path means which indicate interrelatedness of information.'' Compton's says that encompasses far more than just the computer equipment of today. ''This covers all new platforms -- including the interactive digital multimedia highway of the future and interactive television -- if they search multiple databases and are interactive,'' Frank said.

It will take industry attorneys and engineers months of research to decide if Compton's has indeed locked up the core multimedia technology everyone uses. ''We have a number of clients who are going to need to think about this,'' Star said. Frank acknowledged that royalties will help swell Compton's bottom line. Though he declined to say how much the company will charge to license its technology, he said Compton's will be very active in convincing people to sign up.

''We will be religious in trying to help people understand what the patent is,'' he said. Another Compton's executive indicated the company will pursue the model chosen by Ray Dolby, the San Francisco inventor who popularized his Dolby noise suppressant system by licensing patented technology for extremely low fees to recording industry manufacturers.

Compton's developed the technology in the 1980s in order to create a multimedia encyclopedia that could offer photos, sounds and video animations linked to text. The company spent $ 8.5 million to create the database and retrieval technology, but Frank said the program was so successful that Compton's earned back its investment in the first 15 months after the encyclopedia's release in 1989.

Originally owned by Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., Compton's was sold to Tribune Publishing Co. in September.