Shazam! You've Been Sued for Patent Infringement in the Rocket Docket - Technologist
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Shazam! You've Been Sued for Patent Infringement in the Rocket Docket

An obscure company known as Tune Hunter has sued some big names in technology, including Apple and AT&T, for patent infringement, claiming that their promotion of the Shazam application violates Tune Hunter's patent for a music identification system. 

Tune Hunter also sued the company that makes Shazam, as well as Samsung, Amazon.com, Napster, Motorola, Verizon and others. 
Shazam is a wicked cool application for the iPhone and other smartphones (including the BlackBerry and Android phones, although neither Research in Motion nor Google was named in the suit) that allows a user to record a short snippet of a song, which the application then compares the recording with a database, returning information about the song such as its title, artist, album, etc.  The application also lets users purchase the song, watch the music video on YouTube, associate a photo with the record, and share share it with friends.

The complaint, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas at Marshall, alleges that the Shazam application infringes on US Patent No. 6,941,275, which the USPTO issued to Remi Swierczek in 2005.  The patent's abstract states that:

"The present invention relates to a music identification/purchasing system, specifically to a method for marking the time and the name of the radio station in portable device such as a key holder, watch, cellular phone, beeper or the like which will allow the user to learn via internet or regular telephone the name of the song, artist and/or music company by matching the stored data with broadcast archive. The system will allow for purchase of the full length of the identified music item or related music. An alternate embodiment provides the listener with convenient means to record a segment of the music in which he/she is interested. The recorded music segment is played back into an apparatus which can identify the song based on the play back and provide the user with information on the identified song such as title, singer or artist, composer, producer, etc., and provide related purchasing information. The user can make selections and provide payment data to the music identification/purchasing system which will result in the selections being delivered to the user by mail." (emphasis added)

The second half of the description is the part that comes closest to what Shazam does.  Judging by the abstract, Shazam does sound pretty much like what's described.

When you read a bit further, however, you see that the patent really envisions a system where users record a portion of a song in one device and then load the recording into some other device where it will be compared to information in a database.  The patent mentions a retail kiosk and a home computer as possibilities for the second device.

The patent also mentions the possibility that a user could play the music into a telephone after calling a certain 1-800 number. 

If there's a match, the user would then have the option to buy the song and have it delivered over the mail. 

The ideas are similar, but the systems in place are completely different.  Shazam is self-contained; it doesn't require a second device.  It also allows for direct downloads of the songs to the device, rather than receiving the music through the mail. 

Tune Hunter's patent might, as evidence of prior art, block Shazam from getting its own patent for its software, but it doesn't seem likely that Shazam has infringed on the Tune Hunter patent.

Tune Hunter is probably looking to get some kind of licensing arrangement out of this suit, since companies, eager to avoid the cost of a suit, will often settle with the plaintiff in cases like this rather than risk an expensive trial and the potential loss of the ability to make and sell their product.

This time, the plaintiff might be out of luck.  Tech companies, emboldened by recent decisions favorable to technology makers and by what they see as an increase in frivolous patent litigation, are choosing to fight lawsuits now instead of settling them as quickly as possible.

The Marshall court - the so called patent rocket docket - enters some pretty plaintiff-friendly decisions, though.  The defendants should move to get out of there as soon as possible, which this decision from last year makes a little easier.

See Also:
Apple, AT&T, Samsung, Verizon, and others sued over Shazam app (Cnet)