After patent, Creative examines all options

Craig McHugh, president of Creative Labs, says that his company is "evaluating all alternatives" now that it has received a patent for music player interfaces. The patent, issued by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, covers the hierarchical display of music information on digital music players that Creative claims can be found not only on its devices but also on Apple's iPod and iPod mini.

The interface that Creative has patented covers the display of music on a digital music player using hierarchical menus that sort content using metadata tags. In a series of slides shown to conference call attendees, McHugh demonstrated how it works on Creative’s Zen Micro player — the screen shows a music library comprising playlists, albums, artists, genres and tracks — navigating the Artists menu, for example, yields a list of artists whose music is on the player. Go to the next level and you’ll find the artist’s albums on the player; the next shows individual tracks.

The hierarchical menu system employed by the Creative players is immediately familiar to anyone who has handled an iPod or an iPod mini. What’s more, said Creative, the interface was first used in a shipping product more than a year before Apple’s iPod hit shelves, and the patent was filed long before Apple filed its own patent for the iPod.

Second fiddle

Creative has sold six million MP3 players in the last three quarters, said McHugh. By comparison, Apple sold six million iPods just its last financial quarter alone. The significance of this isn’t lost on McHugh, who said that his company’s performance “solidly positions us at the leader in the worldwide market,” adding that he understood that Creative was running second-place to Apple.

The hierarchical interface has been used by nine generations of Creative music players, said McHugh. That includes the Nomad and black and white Zen line, the Zen MicroPhoto, Creative’s alternative to Apple’s color screen-equipped iPod, and the Zen Vision, which features a larger form factor, color screen and the ability to play back video in addition to music and photos.

First to file

The US Patent & Trademark Office awarded Creative its patent in the early August, but this is the first time the company has publicly acknowledged it. McHugh said that the recent press coverage regarding Apple and Microsoft’s patent dispute spurred Creative to take action.

Last month the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office rejected a patent application filed by Apple for some elements of the iPod interface, citing a patent submission made by Microsoft developer five months before.

McHugh explained that Microsoft developer John Platt’s patent covered a different aspect of the interface than the hierarchical display of music. Creative patent application, filed in January of 2001, predates both Apple and Platt’s filings, he added.

Why wasn’t Creative mentioned in the US Patent & Trademark Office’s rejection? As Creative understands it, “the patent office only has to cite one piece of prior art for rejection,” McHugh said. “Not all of them.”

Like Apple, Creative had products out in the marketplace that used the interface before it filed for the patent. This isn’t unusual, said McHugh, as U.S. patent law doesn’t require that a patent be filed prior to a product’s release. Creative followed the appropriate regulations, he said.

Will they or won’t they?

McHugh reiterated several times throughout the call that Creative’s announcement today is “a celebration” of its accomplishment and recognition of its innovation, but he was repeatedly pressed by analysts and reporters after his opening statements on Creative’s plans: Will the company sue Apple or demand a licensing fee?

“We continue to explore all the alternatives available to us,” said McHugh. Later he added that Creative isn’t focusing on those alternatives, however. “Our primary focus is on new products and continuing innovation.”

Apple’s dominant position in the MP3 player market made it a focus of Creative’s press release and of the conference call, but it isn’t the only company that makes a player that uses a hierarchical interface to organize its music. McHugh said that his company is “very diligent” about protecting its intellectual property rights, but hasn’t yet done a comprehensive market survey to determine which companies may be infringing on its patent.

When he was pressed to disclose whether Creative and Apple were engaged in any private talks to discuss the issue, McHugh refused comment.

Representatives for Apple had not responded to MacCentral’s request for comment as this story was posted.

This article has been updated to correct the title of Creative Labs president Craig McHugh.

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