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Creative wins patent for MP3 player interface

Patent covers an interface--also found on the iPod--that lets people navigate successive screens of artists, albums and songs. Images: Creative's user interface

Creative Technology said Tuesday it has been awarded a patent for a user interface found in its portable media players and in competing devices, such as Apple Computer's iPod.

The digital entertainment company said that on Aug. 9 it received U.S. Patent No. 6,928,433, described as "automatic hierarchical categorization of music by metadata." Creative applied for the patent--which it has dubbed the "Zen Patent," named for its Zen music player--on Jan. 5, 2001.

But in a conference call with reporters, Craig McHugh, president of Creative Technology subsidiary Creative Labs, declined to specify what precisely will happen next. Litigation and licensing of the patent to other companies are among the "alternatives" that the company is exploring, he said.

"We're very open to talking to those companies interested in using our user interface and currently using our user interface in their products," McHugh said, declining to comment on whether private discussions are already under way with Apple or other makers of digital music players.

"We're not focused on a legal issue," McHugh went on. "We're focusing really on the celebration of getting this patent."

According to a Creative press release, the interface "enables selection of at least one track in a portable media player as a user sequentially navigates through a hierarchy using three or more successive screens on the display of the player." For example, when a person selects the name of an artist, the player then displays a list of albums for that artist. Selecting the album name then brings up a list of the album's tracks.

Creative first started using the interface in its Nomad Jukebox MP3 player, which began shipping in September 2000, according to the press release. Apple did not announce its iPod until more than a year later.

McHugh said the company had not yet evaluated "all the other players on the market" to determine whether they incorporate the user interface described in the patent.

Apple filed for a patent on a "user interface in a multimedia player" in late 2002 but, according to Creative's press release, that application was recently rejected.

In rejecting the patent, examiners cited a similar claim in a pending application by a Microsoft employee.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Hoping to cut into Apple's market share, Creative recently released a new version of its Zen player that boasts a color screen and a built-in FM radio player. Further, the Zen player, unlike its iPod rival, can play video.

Additionally, several months ago Creative dropped prices on its digital music players.

Creative declined to take questions from reporters until later Tuesday. The company has a press conference scheduled for 2 p.m. EST.