Less than a month after it was an awarded a software patent that covers the user interface Apple uses in its market-leading iPod portable MP3 players, Creative Technologies is accusing Apple of violating that patent. Apple released its first iPod in October 2001. But Creative was first to market with hard drive-based MP3 players over a year earlier, and the UI Apple uses is almost identical to that Creative pioneered.

"We are looking at all our alternatives right now," Craig McHugh, president of Creative's United States operations said, noting that while Apple was the only company it had identified as a patent violator so far, it was investigating others. "We're going to be very vigorous in bringing our new products to market and are going to be very diligent in protecting our intellectual property and our patent rights."

Despite obvious examples of prior art, Apple attempted to patent the iPod user interface in October 2002. But Creative had applied for its MP3 player UI patent in January 2001, before Apple's iPod was even a rumor. Apple's patent request was denied.

Creative hasn't decided yet if it will sue Apple or attempt to collect license fees for Apple's use of Creative's patented design. The potential upside for Creative is huge: though sales of the company's MP3 player products are dwarfed by those of Apple (Creative has sold 6 million hard drive-based MP3 since 2000, while Apple sells that many each quarter), Creative could use this patent to take part financially in Apple's iPod success, which arguably was driven in large measure by the easy-to-use interface it allegedly copied from Creative.

Apple has a few avenues of defense. It could ask the US Patent & Trademark office to re-examine the patent. Or, the company could risk a court battle if it can find examples of prior art that predate Creative's design (none of them, however, would have come from Apple, leading to the possibility that another company could attempt to patent the UI). Apple has refused to comment on Creative's patent thus far.

In related news, Creative's latest MP3 player includes an innovation that Apple is unlikely to copy. 4,000 of Creative's Zen Neon MP3 players inadvertently shipped to Japan from the factory with a functioning copy of the Wullik.b worm, which affects Windows PCs. Creative has temporarily ceased shipments of the device.