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
    Skeptic, 28 Jul 2011 @ 6:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: "Generic" claim?!?

    I added some emphasis assuming this would run on a web browser.

    Finally!! Someone who read the claims! You, sir, have no idea how rare you are on the Internet!

    Your analysis is spot on, except for a couple of places, one of which is actually the key point of the patent (DRM):

    ... the format (JSON/XML, MUSIC STREAM) including a core and a number of additional layers, ...

    I suspect they mean an MPEG-type file format (the "layers" is a hint.)

    ... and an encryption table (PUBLIC KEY?)a nd the one or more additional layers including the actual music information,

    I'm no cryptography expert either, but the "encryption table" is not just a key, but a sequence of numbers required to decrypt each word of the encrypted music information. A key would be used to generate that sequence of numbers. I guess sending the key itself would make it a very easy to break DRM scheme.

    As such, the rest of your analysis is correct, only the encryption/decryption parts change. For instance, the encryption table probably cannot be construed to be SSH/HTTPS.

    The patent lacks anything specific enoguh, in my opinion, to warrant novelty.

    It's not the specifics that constitute novelty, but the complete combination of elements in the claim.

    The only thing I see that seems novel is the encryption table.

    Bingo. The patent is about DRM, as mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, and that is why this piece is in there. Remove this, then it is a generic claim on streaming music.

    But still, the table may actually be novel. But who knows? They don't seem to go on about the specifics of how the table work, which might be worth patenting,

    You are right, they are vague about it, and that may be an invalidating factor. They mention "pixel-matrix cryptography", but I have no idea what it is. Unless they can prove to the court that a person of ordinary skill could read the patent and re-implement it from scratch, they have enablement issues.

    even though at the end of the day, encryption is just math.

    Yes, and practical applications of mathematics is patentable. This patent is not on the mathematics, but an application of that math to apply DRM to streaming music.

    There are a multitude of ways to implement this, and my example was only for a web browser. Not once do they mention the specificities of the invention to differentiate it from one development platform to another.

    True, but that is the purpose of patents. They provide protection to the over-arching implementation without being hindered by interchangeable details. Patents are deliberately written up as broad as prior art allows so that a competitor cannot avoid infringement trivially, by, say, using RTP/UDP/IP instead, of HTTP, or coding in Java instead of Python.

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