As Apple clocks up its fourth lawsuit over creative accounting, its legal department must be pleased to see the back of Creative Technology. Until today, the two companies were embroiled in an argument over who had invented the idea of selecting music tracks by using menus containing information about that music — an idea so simple, it's simple. Still Creative claimed the patent, and went to war on the back of it.
That patent was granted in 2001, more than 20 years after Xerox had shown how to integrate data with interfaces and three years after the first portable MP3 hard disk player with menus. The patent also displays the usual problem of software patents, that there aren't many other ways to do the job. But prior art and obviousness are only defences if you're prepared to go to court.
Apple is a veteran of long-forgotten and ultimately pointless user interface lawsuits, and it made all the right street-fighting moves. It locked horns with Creative by throwing in a counter-suit claiming the rights to headphone-ear juxtaposition or something similar. But aggression and seduction are remarkably similar in this game: following a few ritual blows to each other's carapaces they snuggled up and made nice. Apple has paid Creative $100m, an undisclosed amount of which it will get back if Creative successfully licenses the intellectual property elsewhere.
This is an unusual deal. To the untutored eye, it could look like an investment in Creative with the intention of recouping the money through third-party shakedown. Creative does the hard work, Apple gets its cut, everyone's happy — except Nokia, Microsoft, and anyone else who might fancy building a music player. The patent remains untested in court: not only has Apple paid off the goons, they're working for Uncle Steve now.
When the Creative suit was first announced, Apple fans accused the Singaporeans of not living up to the company name — if you can't compete, leap on someone else's success. With the iPod line looking increasingly moribund, Apple's putting its ingenuity into finding new ways to use flawed law to do much the same thing, without getting its own hands dirty. At least the idea can't be patented: there's prior art aplenty just over the Utah border.
Next time, we'd rather the companies save their time and money to build better products. There's only one part of a user interface that really matters, and that's the user.