Here’s a bit of App Store drama for you: Antares Audio Tech, the company that built the underlying technology licensed for the popular “I am T-Pain” iPhone App, has unleashed their lawyers on Steamboat Mountain Designs, an indie developer and maker of the now-removed iPhone app, “AutoTuner.”
Why? Well, it turns out that the term “Auto-Tune” — which due to the recent spike in usage in pop music has come to be misused almost as often as the term “photoshop” — is trademarked by Antares. In a cease and desist letter, Antares claims that “Steamboat’s use of ‘AutoTuner’ is virtually identical to Antares’ AUTO-TUNE(R) mark, simply adding an ‘r’ at the end of the mark and removing a hyphen, and is used in connection with a software program that is directly competitive and functionally identical to Antares’ AUTO-TUNE(R) product.”
This all comes on the heels of the highly successful launch of the iPhone app sponsored by rap artist T-Pain. Though the app was produced by an iPhone app development company called Smule, it employed a technology called “Auto-Tune,” which Smule licensed from Antares. It is important to note that Smule has played no part in this whatsoever. The app changes your voice in real-time via the Auto-Tune technology, which is employed by tons of major artists to alter the pitch and provide a computer-like feel to their voice.
Just weeks after Antares-powered “I am T-Pain” app hit the App Store, a small indie development studio called Steamboat Mountain Designs released “Autotuner.” [UPDATE: The app has since been released as “Robotuner.” You can find it here.] Interestingly, Antares heard about the upcoming release while Steamboat was conducting some pre-release marketing on — wait for it — Twitter. They immediately sent letters to Steamboat requesting removal of the app. Now, with only 9 employees, Antares is no big dog, but its got a bit more heft than the 1-man iPhone shop at Steamboat Mountain Designs. CEO of Steamboat, Jeff Mathews, claims that they could simply not afford to put up a legal battle over the trademark. Trademark disputes can be costly, and legal fees were mounting. He also added that “[Autotune] seems like common vernacular. For example, a Google search for “autotuner” returns 157,000 hits. A search for “autotuned” returns 283,000 and includes everything from “AutoTuned prank calls” to “The AutoTuned News”. The Wikipedia page for “Pitch Correction” returns the text “An audio processor for correcting pitch in vocal and instrumental performances is called an autotuner.”
Georganna Drayton, COO and Chief Counsel, at Antares, countered that most of the Google hits Jeff spoke about were actually talking about the specific Auto-Tune technology Antares developed. Furthermore, she said this has nothing to do with the size of Jeff’s shop – Antares “aggressively defends their trademark” in all situations. Regardless, clearly their small advantage in size has afforded Antares the ability to pursue legal action where Steamboat could not. Furthermore, as is common with such App Store copyright disputes, Apple has not played a major role, and did not pick sides in the conflict. The only involvement, to our knowledge, is that Apple forwarded Antares’s legal concerns on to Jeff at Steamboat.
UPDATE: Jeff has re-released Autotuner under a new name, Robotuner. It is available on the App Store.