Monday, February 26, 2007

MP3's, Patents and Lawsuits, Oh My!

By now, everyone has heard about Alcatel-Lucent's stunning $1.5 billion verdict handed down last week in the Southern District of California (to view a copy of the jury verdict, click here). Over the weekend, I've gotten e-mails from readers giving updates and asking for more details on the case to find out which patents were involved in the verdict.

Alcatel-Lucent Patents

The jury found infringement on claims 1, 3, and 4 of reissue patent RE39,080 ("Rate loop processor for perceptual encoder/decoder "), and claims 1, 5, and 10 of U.S. patent 5,341,457 ("Perceptual coding of audio signals").

Claim 1 of the '080 patent reads as follows:

1. A method of coding an audio signal comprising:
(a) converting a time domain representation of the audio signal into a frequency domain representation of the audio signal, the frequency domain representation comprising a set of frequency coefficients;

(b) calculating a masking threshold based upon the set of frequency coefficients;

(c) using a rate loop processor in an iterative fashion to determine a set of quantization step size coefficients for use in encoding the set of frequency coefficients, said set of quantization step size coefficients determined by using the masking threshold and an absolute hearing threshold; and

(d) coding the set of frequency coefficients based upon the set of quantization step size coefficients.

Claim 1 of the '457 patent reads as follows:

1. A method of processing an ordered time sequence of audio signals partitioned into a set of ordered blocks, each said block having a discrete frequency spectrum comprising a first set of frequency coefficients, the method comprising, for each of said blocks, the steps of:

(a) grouping said first set of frequency coefficients into at least one group, each group comprising at least one frequency coefficient;

(b) generating at least one tonality value, each group having an associated tonality value, said at least one tonality value reflecting the degree to which said time sequence of audio signals comprises tone-like quality;

(c) generating at least one noise masking threshold, each said at least one noise masking threshold being based upon at least a portion of said at least one tonality value; and

(d) quantizing at least one frequency coefficient in said at least one group, said quantizing based upon said at least one noise masking threshold.

The Fraunhofer/Thomson Patents

Microsoft was spared from willfull infringement, in large part, because they had joined the rest of the industry in taking a license from notorious Fraunhofer/Thomson portfolio of MP3 patents. Alcatel-Lucent successfully argued that the '080 and '457 patents were not covered by the license. To view the list of patents from the Fraunhofer/Thomson portfolio, click here.

Texas MP3 Technologies taking on MP3?

Word has also spread about the company Texas MP3 Technologies, Ltd. (which apparently has no web presence), and their lawsuit against Apple, Samsung, and Sandisk over U.S. Patent 7,065,417 ("MPEG portable sound reproducing system and a reproducing method thereof "). Being true it its namesake, the plaintiff launched the suit in the E.D. Texas (2-07cv-052).

The patent issued in June 2006, and has experienced a winding ownership path from Sigmatel to Texas MP3 Technologies (view assignment records here). When announcing the sale of the patent, Sigmatel stated that "[b]ecause these are such basic patents to digital music, we believe it will be difficult to design around these patents and have a commercially viable player."

You be the judge:

1. A portable audio device suitable for reproducing MPEG encoded data, the
portable audio device comprising:

a plurality of inputs, including a forward input, a reverse input, a play control input, and a random input;

a non-removable data storage to store compressed digitized audio data;

a display;

an audio output;

at least one processor, responsive to selection of at least one of the plurality of inputs, to convert selected compressed digitized audio data stored in the non-removable data storage for reproduction by the audio output and to provide information to the display;

a battery;

and wherein, when a first selection of compressed digitized audio data is being reproduced, the display provides at least one of the first selection's title, type, remaining playtime, and reproduction time;

wherein, when a second selection of compressed digitized audio data is being reproduced and in response to selection of the forward input for a first amount of time, the portable audio device advances to another selection of compressed digitized audio data;

wherein, when a third selection of compressed digitized audio data is being reproduced, in response to selection of the reverse input for a second amount of time, the portable audio device begins playing the third selection from a beginning of the third selection of compressed digitized audio data;

wherein, when a fourth selection of compressed digitized audio data is being reproduced, in response to selection of the play control input, the portable audio device stops playing the fourth selection of compressed digitized audio data;

wherein, in response to selection of the random input, the portable audio device reproduces selections of the compressed digitized audio data stored in the non-removable data storage in a random order; and

wherein, when the portable audio device is in a selected mode of operation and a voltage of the battery falls below a selected level, the display provides an indication relating to a power level of the battery.

To view a copy of the complaint, click here.

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