In the third of our five-part series that looks into the music industry and its active patenting scenario, we dedicate this blog to the giant Amar G. Bose – the founder of Bose Corporation. Every person who understands music will know of Bose’s contribution towards creating the most beautifully captured, noise-free speakers and audio systems. From rich sound emanating from tabletop radios to noise-cancelling headphones that have given fliers a relaxed journey in the air, Bose Inc. has some of the best audio technology to pride in.
He bought a classy looking hi-fi audio set, turned it on and turned it off in five minutes. And that triggered into frenetic research and understanding of audio systems and acoustics which developed into what we today know as Bose Corporation. Founded by former MIT professor, Late Amar G. Bose in 1964, Bose Corporation is best known for creating a revolution in car audio systems. Over the years, the company has been pumping back its earnings into its research activities and inventing newer and better audio techniques and devices. It is no wonder that Bose’s audio systems are a rage and its patents are well protected.
If there’s any doubts on its research activities in the audio products domain, then the chart below should dispel them:
General Motors gives the boost
The story to create world famous audio products began its narration when Bose was just 13 years old. But it was his collaboration with General Motors that kindled the flame into a raging fire for research in this arena.
It was in 1979 when Bose Corporation presented its vehicle audio system ideas to General Motors. With a heads up from GM, Bose Corporation spent $13 million in the next four years to create audio systems that would adapt to the vehicle’s acoustic environment. The successful findings had Bose Corporation designing special audio systems for General Motor’s Cadilac, Buick and Oldsmobile vehicles. Over a period of time, Bose Corporation became the sought after vehicle audio system provider for Honda, Acura, Nissan, Infiniti, Audi, Mercedes Benz and Mazda. A telling tale of its collaboration with Honda was that the client expected Bose to ensure that its product failure rate did not exceed 30 parts per million. For Bose, its dedicated engineers ensured this exacting demand was met with ease. By 1995, Bose’s car audio systems grew to become a 25% revenue earner for the company.
Popular audio products
2004 iPod plays to the crowd
Bose’s SoundDock digital music system (US 7,277,765) became the sound standard for iPod speaker systems, allowing iPod owners to listen unrestrained by earbuds and share their music with others.
2003 Breakthrough for musicians
The Personalized Amplification System by Bose (US 7,260,235) allows musicians to finally hear their performance as the audience does: clearly, distinctly and without many of the inherent problems—and much of the equipment—involved in live amplified music.
2001 ADAPTiQ audio calibration system
Bose solves a nagging sound reproduction problem: the acoustical impact of a room’s dimensions, contents, speaker placement and more. After an easy, one-time setup, advanced circuitry automatically makes adjustments so a Lifestyle system consistently delivers a quality Bose performance.
1975 Bookshelf speaker
Lifelike sound—now in a bookshelf-size speaker. The 301® Direct/Reflecting® speaker system combines detailed performance, versatility and affordability to become one of the world’s top-selling speakers for a number of years.
Bose protects its patents with its life
Bose vs. Harman
It is a well-known fact that Bose Inc. prizes its patents and can scathe anyone who tries to infringe upon them. Audio manufacturers are known to have taken great care to ensure that they have side-stepped Bose Inc. However, Harman International Industries seems to have pressed its luck a little too far with Bose, learning its lesson the hard way.
Bose found Harman’s loudspeaker subsidiaries, JBL Inc. Infiniti Systems Corporation, infringing upon its patents through the use of elliptical plastic ports in some of its speaker models. One fine September morning in 2010, Harman found itself slapped with a $5.7 million judgment and an injunction against producing or selling the products that comprised the disputed feature.
Bose vs. Beats
And now, two days ago on July 25th, Bose filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Beats in the Delaware Federal District Court. Bose has petitioned that Beats be refrained from importing its noise cancelling headphones from China to the US, alleging that these products infringe five of its patents. With this new development, the Apple-Beats collaboration is likely to face a setback, while Apple will now have to face a new opponent at court apart from Samsung – Bose Corp.
In the second of our five-part series on the music industry, we take a sneak peek into Skullcandy, the company that Fortune magazine called “the world’s coolest ear bud” back in 2008. In 2011, the company went ahead and purchased fellow headphone maker, Astro Studios, to give a fillip to its gaming headsets. Skullcandy holds the patent for LINK technology, the method that integrates mobile phones and music players, which is nearly a necessity for every mobile phone user.
The FIFA frenzy has finally died down, but the craze over Skullcandy’s new range of headphones is still on a high. Its unique headphone assortments designed for the players of Germany, France and England have had people grooving to rocking music for hours on end, synchronizing beats to their daily routine. From precision high to attacking bass, the headphones seem to be doing magic with every piece of music. Well, this is nothing new for Skullcandy that has been a popular sponsor of various sporting events. But this fashionable headphone maker has been making the rounds of lawyers’ offices and courts with filing and counter-filing of infringement cases, keeping the mood upbeat in the patent world.
If Fortune magazine named it the “the world’s coolest ear bud” in 2008, it was for no less reason. That was the year when Skullcandy was creating waves by filing a series of patent infringement cases in protection of its patents US7187948, which primarily aims at skiers and snowboarders, and US7395090. These patents were granted for Skullcandy’s creation of “Personal portable integrator for music player and mobile phone” and were granted in March 2007 and July 2008. The patent discloses an integrator with the functionality to receive and send signals to both the audio delivery device and the two way communication device through a headphone. This functionality of the integrator enables an user to listen to music and simultaneously talk on a cell phone.
In October 2008, Nokia, Audiovox Corp., Philips, Jabra, Samsung, Trittion, BlueAnt Wireless Pty. Ltd., Bytech NY Inc., Logic Inc., JayBird Hear LLC, Kye Systems and Hong Kong-based Modelabs Technologies were slapped with charges of infringing both or at least one of the two patents by Skullcandy. These are however just a few of the several other companies that were dragged to the courtrooms. With the exception of Nokia, all the other defendants settled the case in the court. With the headphone market hovering around the $8 billion mark in 2013, recording an average of 284 million units being shipped the world over, it is little surprise that this fragmented, yet increasingly competitive market has brands vying to keep its wings flying. Skullcandy is the least of the existing giants to stay behind, sweeping every nook and corner to keep its IP safe.
Defendants sing Skullcandy’s tune
Between May and June of 2010, Skullcandy reached settlements in a sweep with GN Netcom Inc., which sells Jabra’s headsets, in June and with Samsung Telecommunications America LLC, Tritton Inc., Kye Systems America Corp. and Plantronics Inc. in May. Skullcandy claimed that at least four products of GN Netcom infringed upon the two patents in the limelight.
The same was the case with Philips where Skullcandy claimed that four models of Philips Bluetooth stereo headphones infringed upon the two patents. And as in the cases with the other defendants, the judge dismissed the petition after Skullcandy said it reached a settlement with the opposite party in question. New York-based Audiovox followed suit and was the final defendant to settle the case.
Nokia waves peace flag, GoldLantern sees red
Unlike the other defendants, Nokia decided to take the discussion out of the courtrooms and make peace with the extreme sports headwear maker. While the initial complaint by Skullcandy demanded compensation and treble damages, besides a permanent injunction and payment of its costs and attorney fee by the accused, the settlement with Nokia included that each party would take care of its own legal expenditure. GoldLantern on the other hand was slapped with a permanent injunction barring it from infringing on the said two patents through its G-Lite range of products.
Currying over the legal hassles surrounding its two prized patents that provide the technology for every music-loving mobile user, Skullcandy continues to make music sound what it should sound like – Heavenly.
It all started with a medical intention, but grew into a popular device for those treading the path of quitting smoking. Yes, I am pointing to the ecigarette. With smokers increasingly looking towards the popular nicotine-free and environmentally friendlier ecigars, it is interesting to note that the first patent for this device was filed with a medical intention to help patients inhale vaporized medicine. However, today ecigarettes have become a preferred first step for those who wish to kick the butt.
How do ecigarettes work?
Electronic cigarettes, or ecigarettes, are a class of products which are intended towards simulating smoking using a battery powered vaporizer which vaporizes a liquid and produces aerosol (haze). The liquid includes glycerol, propylene glycol and may contain nicotine. However, it’s a more popular smoking device among those wanting a nicotine-free experience.
While Smokeless Cigarettes were conceptualized decades back, their commercial success is a relatively recent phenomena. Ecigarettes entered the marketplace in 2003-04 and have exhibited rapid growth since then, primarily in US, China and Europe. The US market already surpassed a billion dollar mark last year. The NJOY brand of e-cigars controls 40% of the US market, while other prominent players include V2 Cigs, Reynolds American and Lorillard.
While ecigarettes didn’t enjoy a mass market until recently, it has been 87 years since the first patent application around the concept was filed. Joseph Robinson first patented “Electric Vaporizer” in the year 1927 (US1775947). Interestingly, the patent specification doesn’t discuss tobacco or cigarettes at all; rather it discusses administering medication. However, several modern ecigarette patents (primarily those registered starting circa 2010 and later) cite this early Robinson patent. Robinson’s Vaporizer comprised a container for holding a medicinal compound, which is electrically or otherwise heated to produce vapors for inhalation.
Over 25 years later, in 1955, Otto Lobl was granted a patent (US2721551) titled Tubular mouth inhaler simulating a smoking device. Lobl’s invention was primarily a cigarette simulator with various inhalent or aromatic substances such as Camphor or Menthol, and Lobl wished it could be used for overcoming the habit of cigarette smoking. The inhalant is kept in a glass tube with a tapering structure mounted on a mouthpiece which is closed at the end, with a small hole.
Almost a decade after the Lobl’s patent, in 1965, Herbert Gilbert was granted a patent on Smokeless non-tobacco Cigarette (US3200819).
This is a widely cited patent in the domain (with 92 forward references) and Herbert Gilbert is considered by many to be the inventor of the modern ecigarette. In his invention, burning tobacco and paper was replaced with heated and moist air; thus replacing tobacco smoking with inhaling warm vapor via an object that resembles a cigarette. The patent describes a detachable flavor cartridge fitted in a tubular structure to which a mouthpiece is attached. There is a battery cavity and electric socket in an inner ring of the structure which powers the heating element in an elongated bulb. The patent also accepts the possibility of a rechargeable and detachable battery.
The story from the 1970s-90s
In the ensuing years, several other patents were granted on therapeutic cigarettes (US4149548), device for air purification surrounding a smoker’s nose and mouth (US4184496), cigarette substitute (US4429703), smokeless cigarette (US4911181) and other related inventions. The following table enunciates this:
Two prolific inventors of the new era
It wasn’t until the 2000s that the modern version of ecigarettes started to be commercially manufactured. An American student, Stephane Vlachos, is credited by some to have invented the functional prototype of the ecigarette in 2001. However, it was a Hon Lik, a Chinese inventor of another version of the ecigarette, who enjoyed the first commercial success. He went on to file several patents in China, Europe and US since 2003 and to this date is the most successful inventor in the domain.
Early Hon Lik patents were assigned to Best Partner Worldwide Entities, which was acquired by Ruyan Group. Ruyan later changed its name to Dragonite International Limited and sold its global ecigarette patent portfolio to Fontem Ventures in Nov 2013 in a $75 million deal.
Another inventor, Qiuming Liu, is even more prolific than Hon Lik, but his patent applications are fairly recent (in the last three odd years) and it remains to be seen how many of those get granted. Liu received several design patents around charging case, charger and mouthpiece, and has filed utility patents for all aspects of the ecigarette. Patent publication searches indicate that US and China dominate the patenting activity in ecigarettes worldwide (with a two-third share between them in 2013), and filings have trebled between 2011 and 2013, with Qiuming Liu as by far the most dominant inventor and assignee.
Smoking off with patent litigations
The industry, though in its early stages of growth, is not without its share of patent disputes though. The earliest US patent lawsuit seems to have been filed by Ruyan Group (Holdings) Limited in Jun 2012 asserting its patents against a host of US companies, including Barjan, Finiti Branding Group, Logic Technology Development, Spark Industries and others.
In Nov 2013, Imperial Tobacco acquired Dragonite’s ecigarette unit, including its patents, in a $75 million deal. Later in March 2014, Fontem Ventures sued eleven US companies on charges of infringement. Fontem Ventures is a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco and is the assignee for the patents that Imperial Tobacco acquired from Dragonite. The 2014 patent lawsuits allege that several products of the defendants infringe on the five patents namely 8365742, 8375957, 8393331, 8490628 and 8689805.
The products in question are ecigarettes and its accessories such as rechargeable kits, starter kits, cartridge refills, batteries from the big names in the ecigarette industry NJOY, Logic Technology Development and CIG2O brand from Spark Industries among others. While it is too early to tell whether these lawsuits will result in windfall licensing deals for Fontem, or these patents risk getting invalidated by prior art, more patent disputes and counter suits are likely on the way. Several of the defendants in the 2014 litigations have their own ecigarette patents. Similarly, if Qiuming Liu’s utility patent applications are granted, it will be a very lucrative portfolio for the current ecigarette makers given its coverage of ecigarette the accessories.
For now, it’s a wait and watch game in this space.
Disclaimer: This article in no way tries to promote ecigarettes. It accepts that the rapid rise of ecigarettes cannot be wished away and tries to look at several aspects related to the technology behind it, both from an evolutionary and an enforcement standpoint.Earlier Posts »