The Walkman Patent Fiasco

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With Time naming the Sony Walkman as one of the top 100 gadgets of all time and since Sony has stopped manufacturing and selling its Walkman, it seems appropriate to look at the long patent litigation over this iconic technology.

As a child, I remember receiving my first Walkman and using it primarily to listen to “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis or the Best of Lynryd Skynyrd while mowing the lawn (yeah, I guess I was a little out of the ordinary). What had been monotony was now a journey–albeit a noisy one–through the soundscapes of great musicians. The power of music to transport one’s self to another place while doing just about anything remains as powerful to me today as it was back then.

Feel free to pop on your Men at Work cassette as we remember the lawsuits and the (now archaic looking) patents related to the Walkman.

Back in 2004, a lawsuit between an independent inventor and Sony was settled after 25 years of contentious history. It all began when Andreas Pavel filed a patent for his “stereobelt” in 1977 in Italy (followed by applications in multiple countries including United States, Germany, England and Japan). Granted patent US 4,412,106 (which is a continuation of Ser. No. 47,967 filed June 12, 1979) has the following abstract:

An audio system for portable high fidelity reproduction, to provide a sensation of being surrounded by a three-dimensional field of lifelike sound events, comprises a set of miniaturized electro-acoustical devices adapted to each other and for battery-operated high fidelity reproductions and designed to be supported by or built into an interconnecting belt-like garment, so as to be worn in contact with the listener’s body without causing any discomfort or encumbrance…

Upon listening to a prototype of the device, Pavel knew he had something special:

I was in the woods in St. Moritz, in the mountains. The snow was falling down. I pressed the button, and suddenly we were floating. It was an incredible feeling, to realize that I now had the means to multiply the aesthetic potential of any situation.

Who among us didn’t have that feeling the first time they got their first portable music player?

Getting back to the Walkman controversy…Sony started selling the Walkman in 1979 and began negotiating a royalty arrangement with Pavel in 1980. After six years, all Pavel had to show for his invention was a handful of royalty agreements, and even then only in Germany.

Seeing further remuneration, Pavel continued suing Sony, eventually having the case dismissed in 1996 at which point he owed multi-millions in lawyers fees. He continued, however, and won an out of court settlement in 2003 that reportedly covered his fees as well as providing him some deserved income from his invention.

Do you have any fond memories of your first Walkman? Share with us in the comments!

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This post was edited by Intellogist Team member Chris Jagalla. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company, Landon IP, a major provider of patent search, technical translation, and information services.

9 Responses

  1. Honestly, I fail to see any reasons for Sony to pay… Please enlighten me…?

  2. Thanks for the comment Ronen! It’s my understanding that Sony thought that it would lose on infringement outside of the UK (where the 1996 case was lost)–after that loss Pavel vowed to create lawsuits in every country where he had filed.

  3. Almost sounds like Robert Kearns intermittent windshield wiper invention. Glad to see these inventors finally benefiting, but at what cost (half a lifetime)!!

  4. I could never afford a branded walkman when I was growing up, but I do remember the electric blue el-cheapo generic version I was given for my birthday in the mid 1980s. Cheap, flimsy headphones, terrible sound and battery life, and plug-ugly, but the memories are all good.

    As for the whole “the real inventor of the Walkman finally got some justice from Sony, I don’t buy it.

    Personally, I don’t see this situation as Mr Pavel getting “some deserved income from his invention” (quote from the article), if that’s intended to imply he invented the Walkman.

    Mr Pavel’s device was nothing like a Walkman. It was a belt with various separate components attached to it, connected with wires. That’s hardly the paradigm-changing integrated device the Walkman was when it was released.

    Also, from the article mentioned above:

    “In 1996, the case was dismissed, leaving Mr. Pavel with more than $3 million in court costs to pay.

    But he persisted, warning Sony that he would file new suits in every country where he had patented his invention, and in 2003, after another round of negotiations, the company agreed to settle out of court.”

    Bear in mind that Mr Pavel’s original patents were found invalid in at least the UK and the USA, and apparently the only other countries he filed in were Germany and Japan (and that’s before getting into the question of whether he’d prior-published himself by appearing in public with it in various places around the world and offering it for sale, years prior to submitting his first patent application).

    It seems more likely to me that Sony got tired of fighting – even though they kept winning – and decided to pay up to make the problem go away for good.

    It’s an interesting story, and Mr Pavel is clearly an interesting chap, but the article could be more balanced, in my opinion.

    • Thanks for your perspective Jeff!

      To me, I don’t see how a multi-national billion dollar company could get tired of fighting (especially when they were winning), but perhaps they thought this would buy them some good publicity? You could be correct.

      • Sony’s made enough odd commercial choices over the years that I wouldn’t personally be surprised by any decision they made!

        Consider one other thing: in another article around the time he reached the 2003 settlement, Mr Pavel announced he was going to sue MP3 manufacturers next. However, the first MP3 player didn’t come out until 1998 – AFTER his patents had expired!

        To me, something about the way both parties acted just doesn’t gel. I wonder whether there’re some significant facts that aren’t public?

  5. The 1983 US patent referenced in this blog post would still have been enforceable until 2000 (17 years from 1983, by my count, although the file history shows some curious entries in ’96 and again in ’01). In any case, many questions may forever go unanswered!

  6. […] was his “magnetic tape drive mechanism”, since it eventually led to the creation of the Sony Walkman ™ […]

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