Apple tries to patent iPod interface

Apple Computer is attempting to patent the user interface for its iPod music player with the US government.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made public patent application number 20040055446, covering "graphical user interface and methods of use thereof in a multimedia player".

In the application, which was filed with the USPTO on October 28, 2002, Apple lists three inventors: Apple Chief Executive Officer, Steve Jobs, as well as Jeffrey L. Robbin and Timothy Wasko.

Robbin moved over to Apple in 2000 when Casady & Greene, the company he co-founded, was acquired by Apple, along with its SoundJam MP software, for encoding MP3 tracks from CDs and organising them into playlists.

Wasko, Apple's visual interaction designer, came to Apple in 1997 from Next Software when Jobs returned to Apple from Next.

It is not unusual for a company to attempt to patent a user interface, according to Steven Frank, a partner specialising in patent and intellectual property law with the law firm Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault.

"Such a patent, should it be granted, is a means of enforcing a proprietary architecture, but that is pretty passé at this point," Frank said.

Though it is difficult to know what Apple might do with its patent, Frank speculated that the company could use it to prevent other companies from making iPod knock-offs, or as a way of maintaining control over how the iPod talks to other devices.

It is standard practice for the USPTO to publish an application about 18 months after it is first submitted, and Frank estimated that for this type of technology it would take between two and three years for the USPTO to decide whether it would grant Apple's request, meaning the patent could be granted about six months from now.

In deciding whether to grant the patent, the USPTO will consider whether the technology was in widespread use at the time the application was filed, Frank said.

"All the Patent Office cares about is the inventiveness of the technology at the time of the application," he said.

Should another company or individual feel that Apple's iPod interface was not unique, that person or company could file a competing patent application, Frank said.

"Because of the uniqueness of US patent law, the USPTO gives priority to the first to invent, rather than the first to file," Frank said. "In all other countries in the world, priority is given to the first to file."

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Laura Rohde

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