For the heck of it

Monday, May 22, 2006

Taking a Bite out of Apple

Intellectual properties have always been subjects of debate in the IT industry for quite sometime. Intellectual properties that manage to create a sense of anxiousness on the market, find themselves face-to-face with copyright infringements and court cases. The other day, I came across a news item on the internet that screamed “Creative sues Apple over technology”. The news item further went on to elaborate as to how Creative filed a lawsuit against Apple in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, because it saw Apple being involved in a "willful infringement" of Creative's self-termed Zen Patent.

Creative defines the Zen Patent as “a method of selecting at least one track from a plurality of tracks stored in a computer-readable medium of a portable media player configured to present sequentially a first, second, and third display screen on the display of the media player, the plurality of tracks accessed according to a hierarchy, the hierarchy having a plurality of categories, subcategories, and items respectively in a first, second, and third level of the hierarchy.” In layman terms, it essentially defines the way music tracks are organised and navigated on a player through a hierarchy using three or more successive screens. For instance, this would be a sequence of screens that could display artists, then albums and then tracks.

Creative claims that it shipped the NOMAD Jukebox in the US during September, 2000, and by November the same year, PC Data confirmed that it was already a top revenue-generating product in the US in the digital audio player category. The Apple iPod meanwhile was only announced in October 2001, a full 13 months after Creative had been shipping the NOMAD Jukebox. According to Creative, Apple’s iPod player was also based upon the user interface covered by Creative’s Zen Patent.

Reports also suggest that Apple was in talks with Creative in 2001 to license Creative’s driver source code and explore joint business opportunities. However, the discussion failed to take off further, since Creative declined Apple’s offer to spin off its digital media player business into a separate company that Apple would invest in.

Thus, Apple went ahead and launched its own version of digital audio player in October 2001. Meanwhile in 2005, Creative was awarded the Zen patent. That brings us to a big question – why did Creative wait for almost an entire year to sue Apple over the alleged infringement? There could be two answers to it. May be Creative tried ousting Apple from the top position, by launching new and innovative player models every now and then. But when its efforts failed to materialise, it went ahead and sued Apple following the rule, “if you can’t beat them, sue them”.

Another reason could be that Creative was planning out the lawsuit all this while and found this the right time to get its message aboard. This law suit certainly means that Creative is all out to sue Apple (and other MP3 player vendors) that use the same type of interface. This is because most MP3 player models on the market today, allow you to sort music either by the genre or even the artist name. I am not however sure whether Creative will pursue a licensing agreement with Apple. It might even try an out-of-the-court settlement, similar to what happened between NTP and Research in Motion. However, if Creative's intention is dethroning the king of MP3s, it seems likely that it will pursue the law suit till the end.

Meanwhile Apple surely won't go down without a long, bitter fight. More likely, Creative will push for a rather large sum in damages and a hefty licensing fee to bring in continuing revenues for the struggling music player manufacturer. I feel that Apple will be spending a lot of time and money in the courtroom defending its digital music empire. Why I say this? Well, I just read another news item that said “Apple countersues Creative”.


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