Commentary: CampaignGrid’s New Patent Sets a Dangerous Precedent


New guest author Seth Oldmixon lets us know exactly how he feels about Audience Partners/CampaignGrid’s new patent on digital ad targeting. Update: Perhaps understandably, CampaignGrid has declined to reply, but you can read their framing of the matter in their press release and the patent itself.

Late last month, political digital firm CampaignGrid got some pretty big news from the US Patent and Trademark Office –- they were awarded a patent on politically targeted online advertising. This is great news for CampaignGrid, since online political ad spending is projected to reach almost a billion dollars in 2016. What is great news for CampaignGrid, however, is bad news for everyone else.

CampaignGrid’s patent, No. 8,763,033, is quite broad. Amazingly so, in fact. According to their press release, they now own “the ability to use publicly available voter registration records and political demographic data such as party affiliation, voting history and political geography to target and place advertising.” CEO Jeff Dittus explains that their methodology “allows political advertisers to accurately micro-target digital ads driven by voter registration records and hundreds of other characteristics, while respecting privacy.” This is the same methodology, however, also used by many other digital advertising companies.

CampaignGrid will argue that they were the first to use voter file data to target advertising, and maybe they’re right. But that doesn’t mean that it was a particularly innovative concept –- direct mail firms and phone vendors have been doing that for decades. All CampaignGrid did was apply an old methodology to a new technology. Whether or not CampaignGrid did it first, it’s hard to argue that the methodology wasn’t obvious and inevitable.

What CampaignGrid intends to do with their patent remains to be seen. They have the option of enforcing it strictly, stopping every other online advertising vendor from offering political targeting, creating a monopoly. They could also require every other digital advertising company to pay a fee to license the methodology. Either way, campaigns and advocacy organizations will see costs skyrocket.

More troubling, however, is that CampaignGrid’s attempt to claim ownership of such an obvious and popular processes threatens to stifle the very innovation that has driven growth in digital politics. Digital campaign work has come a long way over the past ten years. From what was once a field dominated by email and “blogger relations,” we have grown into a multi-dimensional industry that comprises email fundraising, lead generation, video production, advertising, community engagement, and mobile web development.

This explosion has been driven by competition between campaigns, consultants, and businesses that are always looking for new and more effective ways to engage with their constituencies. And just as direct mail firms adapted methods from commercial marketing, digital advocacy firms are constantly looking to private sector marketing trends for insights and finding innovative ways to apply those methods to their clients goals. This is essentially what CampaignGrid did when they used voter file data to target digital advertising. By claiming a patent on this methodology, however, CampaignGrid has set a dangerous precedent.

Will Care2 now rush to patent the use of online petitions for lead generation? Will MoveOn attempt to claim a patent on using email for political advocacy? Will BlogAds try to patent self-serve digital advertising? And, more importantly, will everyone in digital politics now feel the need to proactively file patent applications on every new idea in order to preempt another CampaignGrid?

It remains to be seen how CampaignGrid will use its patent, but it’s hard to imagine an outcome that doesn’t include higher costs and less innovation. Ultimately, though, it’s not just digital businesses that will suffer. Recent developments in political targeting have increased civic awareness and participation. They have brought mass communication, once a tool of the wealthy and powerful, to the masses. CampaignGrid’s patent is, unfortunately, a step backward.

Your move, Audience Partners/CampaignGrid.

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