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Apple wants patent on iPod interface

The company got bitten once when trying to protect its user interfaces from competitors. Now it's turning to patents in an effort to protect its diminutive music player.

Apple Computer is trying to patent the interface for its iPod music player.

In a patent application 20040055446, published Thursday, Apple describes a graphical user interface "and methods of use thereof in a multimedia player." The patent application refers to a hierarchically ordered graphical user interface and lists Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs as one of three inventors, along with Jeffrey L. Robbin and Timothy Wasko.

Robbin was the primary author of SoundJam, the MP3 player to which Apple bought the rights in early 2000 as it sought to make up for lost ground in digital music after it underestimated demand for CD-RW drives. Robbin moved to Apple with the acquisition and later took a lead role on the company's iTunes music download service. Wasko worked with Jobs at Next before moving back to Apple after Jobs took up the post of interim CEO (and later CEO).

This is not the first time Apple has tried to stop others from copying its interfaces.

In the late 1980s, the company agreed to license parts of the user interface that appeared in the Lisa and Macintosh computers to Microsoft, which was then working on Windows 1.0. But as Microsoft added more features in Windows 2.0 and later in version 3.0, Apple in 1988 filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard (which at the time was working on an Apple-like skin for Windows called NewWave) to stop them using elements that it used in its Lisa and Macintosh platforms.

Apple lost all its claims, except those that related to the trashcan and file folder icons in HP's long-since abandoned NewWave. An appeal by Apple to the U.S. Supreme Court was later denied.

Critics at the time suggested that Apple was attempting to gain all intellectual property rights over the desktop metaphor for computer interfaces. That case was further complicated when Xerox, which is widely held to have invented the graphical user interface, filed its own lawsuit against Apple, saying that it held all copyrights over graphical user interfaces.

Apple appears to have learned from its mistake in relying on copyright law and is now turning to patent law to protect its user interfaces.

"Patents offer stronger protection than copyright," said Struan Robertson, associate solicitor at law firm Masons. "If what you have done can be covered by a patent, you are well advised to get the patent. But Apple will still have copyright rights over the interface and so could still assert those in any action."

Apple's UK office declined to comment on the patent filing.

Matt Loney of ZDNet UK reported from London.