The AudioFile: The Unpatented Zone

If you haven’t already noticed, the number of patent trolls and sneaky me-first companies suing over digital audio-related patents is approaching infinity. What happens when it actually gets there? We’d get sucked into an another dimension in which the laws of physics still hold, but patent laws break down. A dimension beyond sight and sound. We have entered… the Unpatented Zone. (Doo-doo-doo-doo… doo-doo-doo-doo.)

On streets littered with fairy dust (or is that silicon?), happy-go-lucky consumers prance about with earbuds jammed into their ears. But although they bear the telltale whiteness of familiarity, these are no ordinary earbuds. They’ve got funny-shaped silicone tips on them for a “stable fit and lifelike sound,” despite the lack of any apparent Bose logo. Suddenly a child shakes her head vigorously, and an earbud threatens to pop out — only to be held in place by a very Ultimate Ears-like flexible ear loop. A slight chill runs down your spine, but you press on to the public square (or is it a squircle?) just ahead.

On your way, you catch a glimpse of something in the shadows — the vague shape of a patent lawyer. It slithers back into a nearby sewer as an innocent young woman reaches into her purse to retrieve a shiny rectangular object with a both a touch-screen and a click wheel. Comfortingly, a big white Apple silhouette graces the back — at last, something from your own dimension! A group of young children scoot by with similar players, sharing un-DRM’ed Ogg Vorbis files wirelessly back and forth via a protocol that bears no name. As a visitor in this universe, you’re horrified, but it’s just another day in… the Unpatented Zone.

A bespectacled man wearing a goatee, jeans, and a black turtleneck approaches to ask some mundane question. But as he nears, you can see the screen of his Apple-branded music player (the same one the young woman had), which displays an all-too-familiar menu system identical to the one on Creative’s Zen line of players. Here in the Unpatented Zone, Apple never paid Creative $100M for the licensing rights for the interface–they seemed to have simply appropriated it wholesale. Getting no response from you, the man looks down at his player and gestures on the touch screen, changing the interface to what looks suspiciously like Windows Mobile, provoking profound feelings of unease as he walks away.

Things are getting pretty weird in the Unpatented Zone, but the final stroke comes as you hear an air-raid siren blaring in the distance. As if acting on a single collective impulse, everyone in sight pulls out their “Apple” player, flips it over to the back, and removes the white apple-shaped decal, replacing it with a brand-new white Banana decal. The crowd’s chuckles at your shock and dismay grow louder and louder until it’s a full-fledged roar of laughter… You begin do feel dizzy…

Awakening in your bed, you’re surrounded by reps from Apple, Microsoft, Bose, Ultimate Ears, and Creative. Recounting your nightmarish excursion in the Unpatented Zone, you suddenly realize you’d been surrounded by familiar faces all along. “And you were there… and you, and you….” You look to your nightstand, and your iPod sits in its dock like a faithful friend. A quick check of the menus and the logo on the back reassures you that all patents are indeed intact in this universe.

Out of the corner of your eye, you catch something dark moving along the floor in the shadows — you draw the covers up, fearing another patent lawyer. Whew, thank Jobs God, it’s just your dog.

The illustration above is by Leah Perrotta, a local Brooklyn-based artist and all-around lovely gal.