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Audiohighway struggles to push music player patent

Music biz owes us royalties, says patent owner. Like hell, says music biz

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Last July online music company Audiohighway.com was granted a patent that appears to give it exclusive right to the concept of a portable digital music player. This week, the company tried to persuade the great and the good of the music industry that they should be talking to it about royalties. Understandably, the music biz was having none of it. Audiohighway.com applied for the controversial patent, number 5,914,941, back in 1995. It describes the use of a "portable information storage/playback apparatus having a data interface" used to store and play back downloaded content regardless of the format that content is stored in. As we reported back in July, Audiohighway.com's patent comes from its own ListenUp digital music player, previewed at the 1997 Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas but never released as a commercial product. Back then, Audiohighway.com was called Information Highway Media Corporation. But now it's payment time. Audiohighway.com has apparently contacted over 30 companies, including Diamond Multimedia, creator of the Rio PMP300 MP3 player, demanding royalties -- without much success it seems, which is why Audiohighway.com CEO Nathan Schulof this week attended the Digital Distribution and Music Industry conference to state the company's case. The trouble is, the patent is highly specific about the kind of device it covers. For instance, it states the device must hold music in some form of non-volatile memory, so presumably any player with battery-backed RAM is safe. The patent also specifies the use of a modem within the device, rather than the use of a PC as a download go-between, and other key hardware components. In any case, the patent may still be specious. As Robin Gross, staff intellectual property attorney at online free-speech group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechWeb: "You don't get a patent on the goal, you get a patent on the process." Audiohighway.com's line is that it's simply trying to protect its own intellectual property, but given how specific the patent is, it's unlikely that the company will find anyone who has actually infringed a significant part of it. Besides, when the CEO trots out statistics such as predicted shipments of 13 million digital music players by 2002, the deal is clearly one of making money than protecting inventions. ®

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