On March 23, 1999, the US Patent Office issued Patent #5,886,274 to Seer System. The title of the patent is “System and Method for Generating, Distributing, Storing, and Performing Musical Work Files.” (Check out this scan of the patent from the Seer Systems archives.)
Due to the EFF’s “Patent Busting” campaign, there seems to be considerable confusion around what exactly the “274 patent” describes. The EFF has gone so far as to call it “bogus” and “illegitimate,” but when pressed for their justification, the EFF respond that “free speech” is sufficient justification. They also point to Seer Systems’ founder, Stanley Jungleib’s book General MIDI as “prior art” that makes the patent invalid by describing the same music publishing system (in the section titled “GM2000”).
Does General MIDI describe the system described in the 274 patent? Does it even describe the SeerMusic system that Seer Systems released three years after General MIDI’s first publication?
Not at all.
In 1994 when Jungleib completed the first draft, and even in 1995 when the book was finally published, the devices with which musicians worked were still hardware devices – mostly keyboards and drum machines. Computers were used for sequencing and for editing synth programs, and Internet access was becoming increasingly commonplace, but software synths were simply not the sort of thing you could buy at a retail music store.
Jungleib wrote GM2000 to help synth manufacturers understand the difficulties facing composers and to encourage manufacturers to support General MIDI. GM2000 proposed a future version of GM in which a playback device could help hardware devices determine the most appropriate sounds for performing a composer’s work. If all else fails, the synths would have GM-mapped sounds to fall back on. In other words, the system would make the “worst case” a bit less bad.
Jungleib did not describe an end-to-end software solution that ensures that a composer’s work will sound identical on another system. Jungleib envisioned that system in October of 1995, months after the release of General MIDI. He then reassembled the Seer Systems design team and began work on Reality, the first step towards the SeerMusic system, in which he implemented the system that would eventually be protected by the “274 patent.”
If you’ve ever considered publishing a MIDI file of your own, but gave up on the idea because of all of the variables between you and your potential listeners, the difference between GM2000 and the 274 patent are obvious.
BTW – If you don’t have a copy of General MIDI, you can read it for free online and see for yourself.