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Apple faces iPod, iTunes patent violation claims

Not quite the halo effect, the company anticipated

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Apple has found itself facing a pair of intellectual property challenges that separately claim its FairPlay DRM system and its iPod music player contain technologies to which the Mac maker does not have a right.

First up, Lake Forest, Illinois-based Advanced Audio Devices (AAD) alleges its patent, number 6,587,403, for a "music jukebox", filed in August 2000 but granted in July 2003, covers the kind of thing Apple has brought to market as the iPod.

According to the patent's abstract, AAD's concept covers a "music jukebox which is configured for storing a music library". The device includes a "housing, audio input structure... for receiving audio signals, and a data storage structure... for storing audio signals".

The key words here are "audio signals" - do the iPod's digital audio files count as received and/or stored signals? The iPod shipped in November 2001, but it was by no means the first device to store digital music. Diamond Multimedia's Rio - not the first, but certainly the best-known MP3 hardware pioneer - launched in 1998, long before the AAD patent. It too could be said to store a music library, albeit a small one.

AAD will presumably argue that a library means a full collection of songs rather than a subset of it, hence its patent should be more applicable to hard drive-players like the iPod rather than small-capacity Flash-based units like the early Rios.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong company Pat-rights claims FairPlay violates its US patent, number 6,665,797, which details a method of "protection of software against unauthorised use". It discusses a "central program comprising a EI sub-program for providing identity information of the rightful user thereof for accessing a network central computer to obtain service(s) or software product(s) or alike, in which a secure operation on an account of the rightful user for payment therefore involved; and a AS sub-program for using the existence of the EI sub-program in a computer as a precondition for authorising use of those software products obtained on that computer. The central program is for managing the use of the individual sub-programs therein so that the AS sub-program can be protected from being copied individually".

According to this blog, Pat-rights maintains that FairPlay, when used in conjunction with iTunes, does the same thing to ensure the listener of a protected song has been authorised to do so.

Pat-rights makes the assumption that since Apple didn't patent such a technique, it can only be because someone else has. It claims to be that someone else, though it's entirely possible Apple has already licensed the technology from a third-party. Patent duplication is not unknown, after all.

Pat-rights filed for its patent in July 1998 and had it granted in December 2003. A year later, it approached Apple, it claims, but was apparently sent away by Apple's legal team with a flea in its ear.

Apple presumably - it hasn't commented on the case, and wouldn't tell us if it had - believes Pat-rights' patent covers the delivery of software programs, not digital audio content. At this stage, the two sides are in talks, but if an agreement isn't reached by 21 March, Pat-rights may sue. ®

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