Or it may simply be the latest example of a patent system that is overwhelmed by the pace and complexity of today's high-technology industry.
Patent 671 appears to give Compton's New Media, a division of the Tribune Co., control over the most popular techniques for searching for information in multimedia data bases. Compton's applied for the patent in 1989, shortly after the publication of Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia on CD-ROM.
The patent was awarded in August, but Compton's waited until Nov. 15, the first day of the Comdex/Fall trade show, to announce the award and its plans for collecting royalties.
If the patent is as broad as Compton's officials say it is, and if it can be defended -- which industry analysts said was doubtful -- Compton's will seek to collect royalties of as much as 3 percent from makers of rival multimedia software, including Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, the most direct competitor for Compton's, and scores of other programs.
Peter Black, president of Xiphias Inc. of Los Angeles, a maker of multimedia CD-ROM titles, said that if the Compton's patent is upheld and applied to such technologies as movies-on-demand and interactive television, it would constitute, in effect, a tax on intellectual property.
Time Warner, Paramount, QVC, Sony and others would not be able to distribute their movies without some form of multimedia data base search mechanism to allow customers to choose which shows they want to watch.
But Mr. Black added his belief that the patent would not stand. He cited multimedia search techniques described at the Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center nearly two decades before the filing by Compton's. If it can be established that there was "prior art" -- that people had been working on similar designs before the patent was applied for -- it would greatly increase the chance that this patent would be rescinded.
Multimedia is the term used for software that combines text with pictures, compact-disk sound, animation and video clips. As personal computers become more powerful, multimedia technology is expected to become the norm.
The patent could also be applied to searches of multimedia data bases using on-line information services or local area networks, or eventually interactive television and expanded telephone services.
The potential impact of the Compton's patent thus extends far beyond CD-ROM disks and into the realm of such emerging technologies as movies-on-demand, on-line information services and home shopping.
"We simply want the public to recognize Compton's New Media as the pioneer in this industry, promote a standard that can be used by every developer, and be compensated for the investments we have made to make multimedia a reality for developers and end users," Stanley Frank, president and chief executive of Compton's,said in a news release announcing the patent.
But almost as quickly as it arose, the furor against Compton's was replaced by anger toward the Patent Office for what some said was simply the latest blunder by an agency ill-prepared for assessing rapidly changing technology.
Jeffrey Tarter, editor and publisher of Soft Letter, a software newsletter in Watertown, Mass., said, "Clearly they have no understanding of the software industry, and they fail consistently to do their homework. There have been patents before that have sounded similarly apocalyptic that turned out to be essentially meaningless. The odds are that this will go away."
Or, as Gary A. Hecker, a patent attorney with the firm Hecker & Harriman in Los Angeles, put it: "About once a week, or at least many times per year, our best technology companies have someone wrapping a patent around a rock and throwing it through their windows."
He is defending Novell Inc. against a patent suit brought by someone who claims to have invented the now widespread idea of client-server computing.
"It happens all the time," Mr. Hecker said. "Forget the money that's lost in legal costs. That's just part of it. It's the diversion of engineering talent in evaluating these patents and trying to fend them off that is the great hindrance. It's a nightmare; it's a disgrace."
Aside from Microsoft, companies that appear to be affected by the patent decision include the International Business Machines Corp., which has spent millions of dollars developing multimedia data bases.
Multimedia encyclopedias are the most obvious example of the indexed data bases using multiple data types. For example, a user might wish to delve into a computer data base to research turkeys.
NB Before the late 1980s, when multimedia techniques first became
popular, the majority of data bases were text-only. The user would search for information by typing key words. For example, one might type "turkey and bird and Pilgrim."
Today the data base may include photos, video clips and sound bites. And there can be links between items -- an article on Thanksgiving might be cross-referenced to a photo of a turkey.
Or, the user might select "turkeys" from an alphabetized index, point to a picture of a turkey or choose "gobble.wav" from a soundtrack of various bird calls, and so on. It is this process to which the new patent applies.
Computer bulletin boards were quickly buzzing with discussions what some people said were examples of multimedia data base search techniques predating 1989, suggesting that Compton's was not the first multimedia pioneer.
If these cases turn out to be valid and pertinent to the Compton's case, the question is: If the Internet and other computer bulletin boards turned up pertinent examples in minutes, how efficient is the Patent Office's examination process?
(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau:  328-8258.)