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Apple and the ‘billion dollar’ download patent

an image of the the Apple iTunes software iconWhen do the words: “Patent Infringement” suddenly start to sound more like music to ones ears? When it’s Apple signing an out-of-court settlement that has them whistling a tune that everyone else might just have to dance to.

“A recent out-of-court settlement between Apple Computer and a Vermont-based inventor has landed Apple the rights to a prestigious software design patent that may allow the company to seek royalties on a broad spectrum of digital downloads.”

While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, David Contois of Essex Junction, Vermont-based Contois Music Technology will no doubt be a happier, wealthier man for his troubles.

“Michael Starkweather, a lawyer and author of the 10-year old patent, issued a statement on Thursday calling it a ‘billion dollar patent’ that will have affects on the future of the ‘cell phone, iPod and PDA‘ industries.

Realizing that downloading movies was an obvious variation to downloading music, Starkweather broke the patent into three elements; remote music storage, selection of music to download and playing music on a music device.”

A shrewd move, of that there is no doubt, and worthy of a doff of my cap in the direction of Mr. Starkweather.

Anticipating trends is one thing, going through the process of filing a patent and then further refining that patent to cover future possible variations of usage is something else.

To use common American nomenclature, Starkweather was clearly ‘covering his bases’ by defining the downloading of music, storing music and the selection of music on some kind of portable music player.

It’s only a pity he couldn’t he couldn’t have gone one step further and seen the scroll wheel!

“The suit stated that Contois conceived and developed a computer interface for playing music on an internal or external computer-responsive music device, which he then exhibited at the 1995 COMDEX trade show and the 1996 NAMM music industry trade show. According to the filing, people who were at the time employed by or later became employed by Apple were present at both trade shows and viewed Contois’ software. The suit alleged Apple later ‘copied’ the invention and used the design ideas in the interface for iTunes.”

I read this story when it originally broke, and never for one moment believed some of the headlines that were flying around at the time. Those which espoused to Apple having to scrap iTunes, for example.

Apple has hugely deep pockets, so to me at least, David Contois knew he was onto a good thing and did the right thing in the end.

His course of action was entirely legal and he did what any good patent holder should do and that’s enforce those patents when they’re infringed.

However, could Michael Starkweather have a point? Could it be that Apple has a big enough legal stick to beat all of their competitors with?

Even if Apple have the means, I don’t know if they have the motivation. I can’t remember Apple throwing their weight around too many times with regards to enforcing patents.

Plus, with the likes of Microsoft being the principle recipient of any such litigation, Apple would need to dig very deep into those pockets, and hope that there’s a white rabbit in there somewhere, too.

Right now, Microsoft has their own problems to deal with, what with the Zune player not doing as well as Microsoft might like, I’d hazard a guess and say that Apple would prefer to beat Microsoft in a clean fight, pitting their iPod range against them, rather than an ugly, court room brawl.

Besides which, Microsoft knows all the right moves when it comes to dancing to that song.

If litigation is to be Apple’s tune, Microsoft won’t be doing no Tango, they prefer a slow Waltz…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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