In what might be called an interactive version of David vs. Goliath, ACTV has filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against The Walt Disney Co. and subsidiaries ABC and ESPN.
New York-based ACTV, which has developed technology for interactive programming applications and individualized advertising, alleges that Disney is infringing on ACTV's intellectual property with the Enhanced TV online programming it distributes, via the Internet, during broadcasts of ABC's Monday Night Football
and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
and ESPN's Sunday Night Football.
ACTV believes its patents cover the synchronization of online content with broadcast TV programming, a technology it currently markets under the HyperTV brand name and has licensed to TBS, TV Land and The Box Music Network. It maintains that Disney is infringing its patents by producing online statistics, graphics, games and viewer polls relating to its football coverage and popular Millionaire
"We view the Disney litigation as a step we must take to protect our patents and support our licensing program," said ACTV chief intellectual-property officer Scott Doyle in a statement.
ACTV's move was not altogether unexpected. The company, which counts Liberty Digital, Motorola and OpenTV as investors, has developed an extensive patent portfolio and just last month received two patents in the UK relating to its "One To One TV" individualized-advertising technology. ACTV executives hinted in the past that the company would defend its intellectual property in due course, and in late November, Doyle, a partner with international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, was hired.
For its part, Disney denies any wrongdoing in its Enhanced TV applications, which are run out of ABC Radio headquarters on Manhattan's West Side. Although aimed at PC users, the content is produced and distributed very much like a live TV application. For NFL coverage, a staff of 12 in New York interfaces with engineers at Disney Imagineering in San Diego and a production truck at the game site assembles highlight packages, compiles stats and uses commercial breaks to conduct live polls and ask trivia questions.
"We unconditionally deny that our Enhanced TV technology infringes on anyone's patents," says Walt Disney Internet Group spokesman Eric Handler. "Our in-house technical staff developed its own unique technology."
According to Jonathan Leess, senior vice president and general manager of ABC Enhanced Television, the MNF
Internet coverage draws 100,000 to 150,000 users during each 3.5 hour broadcast, with the average user spending about 40 minutes online. Millionaire
draws 75,000 to 100,000 users for each hour-long program, with an average duration of 35 minutes online. Millionaire's online game itself has 12,000 to 15,000 simultaneous users every night, Leess adds.
Disney is forging ahead with its Enhanced TV plans. On Jan. 3, ABC will produce an Enhanced TV telecast of the 2001 FedEx Orange Bowl that can be accessed on ESPN.com.