Apple sues Creative: that’s what patents are for

Three days ago the inaptly named Creative Technology sued Apple for patent infringement, saying that organizing and navigating music by artists, albums, genre, etc., was covered by U.S. Patent 6,928,433.

Now the news is out that Apple is suing Creative, claiming that Creative infringes on not one, but four patented Apple technologies.

Creative’s patent
Creative’s patent seems, on the face of it, fairly obvious. Basically, what it claims to do is provided a method of browsing and selecting music with multiple filters: album, genre, artist. From the patent filing here’s one “summarized” description of it:

Categories include items that can also be included in other categories so that the categories “overlap” with each other. Thus, a song title can be accessed in multiple different ways by starting with different categories. For example, a preferred embodiment of the invention uses the top-level categories “Albums”, “Artists”, “Genres” (or styles), and “Play Lists”. Within the Albums category are names of different albums of songs stored in the device. Within each album are the album tracks, or songs, associated with that album. Similarly, the Artists category includes names of artists which are, in turn, associated with their albums and songs. The Genre category includes types of categories of music such as “Rock”, “Hip Hop”, “Rap”, “Easy Listening”, etc. Within these sub-categories are found associated songs. Finally, the “Play Lists” category includes collections of albums and/or songs which are typically defined by the user.

And here’s the supporting artwork Creative submitted to the US Patent Office. Note the mispelled “Configuration.”

I would argue that this is a fairly obvious application of technology to playing music, whether on a handheld MP3 player, or a computer. Software has been applying filters to sort and view custom datasets for a long time. Applying this to music, once music is digital, is not qualitatively different than applying it to any other bits and bytes on a hard disk.

Apple’s patents
That said, it’s hard to evaluate the merits of Apple’s four patents – no details about which have yet been released.

Whatever they are, however, I would not be surprised in the least to find them as obvious as the Creative patent. Time will tell.

The point of patents
That’s almost irrelevant, however. The point of patents for most big businesses today is self-defence. It’s about amassing a big enough portolio of both obvious and non-obvious patent so that anyone who thinks about suing you realizes very quickly that you are not a soft target. In fact, you’re a very hard target and, with all the patents in your warchest, there’s going to be at least one which the company suing you infringes against.

In which case, of course, it’s MUCH easier to come to some sort of understanding regarding patents and MUCH easier to settle lawsuits without excessive corporate bleeding..

(The only place where this breaks down, of course, is patent sharks: where the company that is suing you owns nothing but a series of patents. If they don’t actually do anything, produce anything of value, or sell something, it’s almost impossible to find a patent of yours that they infringe on.)

So that’s what Apple is doing. They’ll probably fight the Creative suit as far as they need to to get it thrown out. But just in case, they’re suing based on the 4 other patents that they say Creative is infringing on. It’s nothing but legal insurance.

The one point of danger
In this situation, Apple’s countersuit is only as good as Creative’s desire to stay in the MP3 player business.

After all, Apple is earning billions in the space, and Creative is losing money hand over fist. Faced with a patent infringement lawsuit on your money-losing division, what would you do? Maybe, you’d just drop the money-losing division. In this scenario, if Creative kills its MP3 business, the countersuit becomes irrelevant.

My guess, however, is that this is a fight Creative is not willing to concede just yet, and so they’ll stay in the business.

Which means we’ve got a ring-side seat on some very interesting legal maneuvering in the next weeks and months!

[tags] legal, law, creative, apple, ipod, zen, patent, USPTO, MP3 [/tags]