That Didn't Take Long: Spotify Sued For Patent Infringement Just Weeks After Entering US Market

from the welcome-to-america! dept

Hello Spotify. Welcome to America, where if you do anything even remotely innovative, you get sued for patent infringement. Indeed, just a couple weeks after entering the US market (finally), Spotify is being sued by PacketVideo for patent infringement. I knew the name PacketVideo sounded familiar... and then I remembered. A decade ago it was considered one of the hottest startups on the planet for trying to figure out ways to do streaming video on mobile phones (something I noted at the time I thought was not at all compelling -- which I'll admit I was totally wrong on, but that was before the invention of large screened smartphones that we have today). Of course, PacketVideo failed to live up to the early lofty expectations, and last we heard of it, the company was being acquired by DoCoMo for what appears to be a lot less money than it raised over the years.

Now, you might claim that perhaps PacketVideo has a legitimate patent claim here. After all, the company has been around for well over a decade and was an early pioneer in streaming efforts. But... the details suggest not so much. The actual patent in question, 5,636,276, is for a "Device for the distribution of music information in digital form." Sound broad? Of course, as the patent attorneys in the audience will tell you, it's not the title of the patent that matters, but the claims. So go read through the claims and try not to gag. What's described is the very generic idea of streaming music. Here's the key claim:
a central memory device which is connected to a communications network and has a databank of digitized music information and, a terminal which is connected to the central memory device via the communications network, the central memory device being equipped with a retrieval module and the said modules having the capability to interact via the communications network in order to order and transmit selectively chosen music information, wherein the selectively chosen music information is organized with a defined format for transmission in a digital music information object, the format including a core and a number of additional layers, the core including at least one object identification code, object structure information, a consumer code and an encryption table and the one or more additional layers including the actual music information, wherein the central memory device has an encryption module for encryption of the music information object before transmission using the encryption table, and wherein the terminal has a decryption module for decryption of the music information object before its reproduction using the encryption table, an interpretation module for interpretation and reproduction conditioning of the music information object as well as an authorization device having identification information for identification of the terminal and of the consumer which is retrievable by the interpretation module and by the decryption module for authorization checking.
Now here's the thing. When this patent was filed in 1995, this was not a unique idea. You could have asked any semi-competent engineer how would you build a digital music streaming service, and you would have received a similar general explanation. The problem was never in understanding the various pieces you need to put together. The difficulty at the time was getting enough bandwidth to do this reasonably... and getting any sort of licensing in an era before most label execs even knew what the internet was.

Oh, and let's get to the important part: PacketVideo had nothing to do with this patent. The company just bought it a few years back. There's nothing in this patent that was some amazing breakthrough or key innovation. Spotify is an amazing product, not because of this patent, but because of how it actually executed and built a working product.

Once again, we see patents being used as a tool to shakedown companies who were actually innovative in how they executed, with a ridiculously broad patent that contributed zippo to the actual state of the art.

Filed Under: music, patents, streaming
Companies: packetvideo, spotify

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  1. identicon
    saulgoode, 31 Jul 2011 @ 6:30am

    The Music Connection connection

    Every aspect but one of this '276 patent was already implemented and in practical, public usage in 1989. At that time Quantum Link's online service introduced "The Music Connection", wherein music files encoded in the SIDplayer format were stored centrally on the Q-Link (Stratus) server and delivered upon request to the client's computer, where the file could then be immediately unencoded and rendered through that computer's sound system (i.e., "streamed").

    The SIDplayer format consisted of a three row by two column "encoding table" which specified the length of the musical data (in bytes) of the three available musical voices. The musical data for each of the three voices followed immediately the "encoding table", and at the end of the musical data was a final field (i.e., "layer") comprised of textual information about the music encoded in Commodore's PETscii character format.

    The only distinction between the service provided by Q-Link's "The Music Connection" and the technology described by the '276 patent is that the musical data was "encoded", not "encrypted". The distinguishing characteristic between "encoding" and "encrypting" being whether or not the information required for decoding/decryption is publicly available. That is to say, if I encode some data and only provide certain people the appropriate information needed to unencode then it can be claimed that I have "encrypted" that data. However, if I perform that same encoding and then share with everyone the means by which the data can be recovered, then I have not technically "encrypted" the data, but merely "encoded" it.

    Had Quantum Link chosen not to use the publicly known encoding specified by SIDplayer's published .mus file format but instead kept the encoding methodology to themselves, then their encoding would have properly been able to claim that the data was "encrypted" and their "Music Connection" service would have implemented *every* aspect of the technology described the first claim of the '276 patent -- and done so half a decade before that patent was applied for.

    So what the examiners at the USPTO are basically saying is that "keeping information secret" is a patentable concept in and of itself -- not "how" the information is kept secret, merely that it is. I.e., if someone invents a new kind engine and tells everyone how to use it, five years later someone can be granted a patent for that same engine, but with the added "technological improvement" of NOT telling people how to use it.

    Whether information is encoded or encrypted is determined merely by the decision of who is to receive the decoding information, this decision is by no means "technology" -- let alone patentable technology -- and the '276 patent should never have granted because the actual technology it described had already seen widespread public usage and was reported in nationally published magazines such as COMPUTE!.

    Note: many BBSes of that basic timeframe also offered similar music services and may have predated Q-Link's offering.

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