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Court pares back digital-download patent

After winning settlements from defendants including Amazon.com, Intouch Group loses a round in its bid to collect licensing fees for its technology.

Intouch Group has lost a round in its bid to collect more licensing fees for its technology, with a federal judge invalidating parts of a controversial digital download patent.

This week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted Entertaindom, a defunct unit of AOL Time Warner's Warner Music Group, a motion for summary judgment in its patent infringement lawsuit against the digital music company. Intouch's patent covers systems that allow people to sample music or allow a Web store to determine a visitor's music preferences.

"Entertaindom has provided clear and convincing proof of public use of the inventions," Judge D. Lowell Jensen wrote in his court opinion.

The decision leaves in place three remaining patent claims, according to Intouch attorney Ronald Guttman. He said a trial is set for September.

"The patent is still in effect," Guttman said. "I'm not very happy that these two claims have been eliminated from the patent, but we're prepared to proceed in patent litigation...(This ruling) doesn't affect our desire to go ahead and seek damages from those who are infringing on the patent."

A representative for AOL Time Warner could not immediately be reached for comment.

Berkeley, Calif.-based Intouch had sued Entertaindom, Listen.com, Muze, Amazon.com, Liquid Audio and Loudeye Technologies' DiscoverMusic, accusing them of infringing its patent. According to court documents, Intouch Chief Executive Joshua Kaplan filed a patent, known as the 916 patent, in October 1996.

Intouch said all of the defendants except Entertaindom have agreed to settle the suit.

Intouch's case is one of several high-profile lawsuits centered on patent infringement that could affect the market for downloadable music and video. Last month, digital media company SightSound Technologies won a ruling on a set of patents in its lawsuit with Bertelsmann division CDNow.

The outcome of such cases could raise the cost of the commercial delivery of digital media over the Web by forcing companies to pay licensing fees for a range of technology.

This week's ruling "doesn't deal with the copyright aspect of music itself, but Intouch had threatened a lot of companies with patent-information lawsuits, so this removes that threat," said Neil Smith, an attorney at Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, which represented Muze in the suit.